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Remembering Evelyn Gandy: A Trailblazer in Leadership

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.

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Gandy was “a woman of firsts” who used her gifts, talents, and abilities to pave the way for women entering politics and beyond.

Evelyn Gandy was the Lt. Governor when I moved to Mississippi in 1977. I remember her being interviewed on television and reading articles about her in the Clarion Ledger. Still, other than that, I knew very little about her background and contributions to our state, that is, until I started doing my research.

I began by looking for a book either written by Ms. Gandy or about Ms. Gandy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything. Instead, I learned that the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) has the Edythe Evelyn Gandy Collection. The collection contains historical manuscript materials, photographs, Gandy family materials, personal items, and other memorabilia.

Brandon Ball, Processing Assistant, Historical Manuscripts and Archives, works at the McCain Library and Archives at USM. It took him two years to organize the collection—from 2014 to 2016. He created 49 scrapbooks, placed in order about 1,700 photographs, plus all her speeches and personal items. The collection is open to the public.

Join me as I look a little deeper into the life of a woman fondly remembered as a woman of “firsts.” Perhaps what you read today will spur you on to learn more about this remarkable woman and plan a visit to USM.

The Significance of 1920

Have you ever searched the internet for a summary of the newspaper headlines for the year you were born? Reviewing the significant events of the year 1920, I discovered the first day of Prohibition came into effect on January 17, 1920. That same month, Walt Disney started his film industry career when KC Slide Co. hired him. The month of August ran two headlines. The first one involved Carl Mays, a Yankee pitcher, who hit Cleveland Indians shortstop Raymond Chapman with a high fastball, striking him in the head. Chapman died the next day. To this day it’s the only major league fatality.

Many individuals consider the most significant event of the year to be August 18th, the day women were awarded the right to vote. The suffrage movement began in 1848. It was signed into law on August 26, 1920 (It would be March 22, 1984, before Mississippi ratified the Nineteenth Amendment). Days later, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Kearney C. Gandy and Abbie Whigham Gandy welcomed their first child, Edythe Evelyn Gandy, on September 4, 1920. Over the years, her father worked as a farmer with the Hattiesburg Production Credit Association and for the State of Mississippi.

Mr. Gandy was also an avid supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. As Evelyn grew, he encouraged her to pursue her dreams, reminding her nothing was out of her reach. How interesting that a woman, born the same year women were granted the right to vote, would one day be the first woman to hold a statewide office in Mississippi.

Preparation comes first

In 1938, Evelyn Gandy graduated from Hattiesburg High School. She attended State Teachers College/Mississippi Southern College (now USM). She earned her pre-legal course work in 1940. The next step was to enroll at the University of Mississippi School of Law. She earned her Juris Doctorate in 1943, as the only woman in her class. As a student, she served as the first female president of the law school student body.

After graduation, she went to work for U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo for three years as a Legislative Assistant. She then returned to Hattiesburg to run for State Representative in the Mississippi Legislature and won. Her parents and sister, Martha Frances Gandy, were actively involved in her campaign, contributing to her success. She served from 1948 until 1952.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

While Ms. Gandy was in the Mississippi Legislature, an appointment came to serve as Assistant Attorney General. In 1959, she became the first woman to be elected State Treasurer.

Her political aspirations continued. Next, she ran for the office of Lieutenant Governor. She lost the election to Carroll Gartin. She accepted an appointment to the position of Commissioner of Public Welfare. After her term, she was elected State Treasurer in 1967 and served from 1968 to 1972. She then returned to the campaign trail, this time running for the position of Commissioner of Insurance in 1971. She won the election and became the first woman elected to that position, serving from 1972 to 1976.

The glass ceiling had been broken. It was time to continue the momentum and move forward, this time for the position of Lieutenant Governor. She was elected—as a woman, another first. Her term ended in 1980.

Evelyn Gandy ran twice for Governor of the state of Mississippi. First, it was the race against William Winter – defeated. Then again, in 1983, she ran against William Allain – defeated. In 1984, she entered private law practice with Ingram, Matthews, and Stroud. And she then joined Ingram and Associates law firm in 1994. Repeatedly Edythe Evelyn Gandy was recognized for her work and achievements.

The following is a sample of the many honors and awards she received:

  • Honorary Degree of Doctor of Law in 1977 from Blue Mountain College
  • Mississippi College School of Law Award for Excellence in Law in 1984
  • The Mississippi Women’s Political Caucus Susan B. Anthony Award for Outstanding Service to the State of Mississippi 1984
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, The Mississippi Bar 1994
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Mississippi Association of Women Lawyers 1998

Evelyn Gandy died on December 23, 2007, at 87 years of age. William Winter delivered her eulogy. He said, “I had the advantage in the Mississippi politics of almost 30 years ago of being a man who ran against a woman. I would hope that advantage would not exist today, and if it does not, it is because Evelyn Gandy has blazed the trail.”

Following in Gandy’s footsteps are three other women. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck served from 2000-2008. Cindy Hyde-Smith served as the Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce (2011). Smith was a member of the Mississippi State Senate and currently serves as a U.S. Senator, and she was the first woman to represent Mississippi in the Senate when Governor Phil Bryant appointed her to fill the vacancy when Thad Cochran resigned. Lynn Fitch is the first woman Attorney General, moving into her new position on January 9, 2020, after serving eight years as State Treasurer (2012 to 2020).

Who will be the next woman to run for the office of Governor for the state of Mississippi? Only time will tell if the glass ceiling will ever be broken entirely.

Lasting Tributes

Senate Bills 2371 and 2372, along with House Bill 89, were approved for Highway 42, a bypass from Hattiesburg to Petal named the Evelyn Gandy Parkway. The dedication service was held on June 11, 2002. Evelyn, living in Hattiesburg at that time, was grateful for the honor bestowed upon her. However, she passed before the parkway project was completed.

The University of Southern Mississippi offers a junior or senior student a scholarship in Gandy’s name. The student must graduate from a Mississippi high school, major in political science, and plan to pursue a law degree.

The Mississippi Bar Women in the Profession Section hosted the 30th Annual Evelyn Gandy Lecture Series in January 2023. This year some of the guest speakers were Justice Dawn Beam, Mississippi Supreme Court; Judge Virginia Carlton, Court of Appeals Presiding Judge (District 4, Place 1); and Attorney General Lynn Fitch.

“Evelyn Gandy shattered glass ceilings and blazed a mighty trail for the women in the State of Mississippi to excel in law and politics,” said Fitch. “She was a strong advocate for all of Mississippi’s people, regardless of color or ethnicity.”

The University of Southern Mississippi has established the “Evelyn Gandy Center for Women and Leadership” named in honor of the distinguished USM alumna, public servant, and fearless advocate for Mississippi who was often referred to as “the most successful woman in the history of Mississippi politics.” On September 4, 2020, on what would have been Gandy’s 100th birthday, the University of Southern Mississippi presented a video honoring her. 

Evelyn Gandy is remembered for making a difference in many areas. She was “a woman of firsts” who used her gifts, talents, and abilities to pave the way for women entering politics and beyond.

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Read original article by clicking here.

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