Only six women have held statewide office in Mississippi

Published 7:51 pm Monday, January 6, 2020

Republican Lynn Fitch will be sworn in as Mississippi’s new attorney general Thursday, becoming the first woman in that job.

Fitch is one of only six women ever elected to statewide office in Mississippi. Two of them — Nellah Massey Bailey and Julia Henrich Kendrick — are often overlooked.

Bailey was elected three times as state tax collector, in 1947, 1951 and 1955. She was the widow of Mississippi Gov. Thomas L. Bailey, who served less than three years before he died of a stroke in late 1946.

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Nellah Bailey campaigned as “Mrs. Thomas L. Bailey,” following the practice of many married women who used a husband’s name for social or business purposes.

On a 1955 campaign flyer, she used the slogan: “Elect a woman who has made good.”

“Mrs. Thomas L. Bailey has honestly executed the laws governing the State Tax Collector’s office, never compromising with anyone,” the flyer said. “All taxes collected have been accounted for as required by law.”

Nellah Bailey died in 1956. The job of state tax collector was later abolished.

In 1963, Kendrick was elected statewide as clerk of the Mississippi Supreme Court. She served four terms, retiring when her successor took office in January 1980.

“As Supreme Court clerk, she was concerned that the public had an accurate and wholesome understanding of and appreciation for the court and its function in the promotion of the common well being through equal and fair justice for all,” according to her obituary published in June 1991 in the Holmes County Herald.

Mississippi Supreme Court clerks are now appointed.

While tax collector and Supreme Court clerk were statewide offices, they were not mentioned in the Mississippi Constitution.

The first woman to win a statewide office established in the constitution was Evelyn Gandy, a Hattiesburg attorney who was elected state treasurer in 1959. She had already served in the Mississippi House of Representatives, a district office. Gandy ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1963 and then won a second term as state treasurer in 1967. She won her second statewide office, insurance commissioner, in 1971. And, Gandy was elected lieutenant governor in 1975.

Gandy, a Democrat, was the first woman to serve in all three of those statewide offices, and she often encouraged other women to pursue their goals. She died in 2007. When Fitch won the attorney general’s race in November, she credited Gandy as an inspiration.

The only other woman to serve as Mississippi lieutenant governor was Amy Tuck, who won as a Democrat in 1999, became a Republican in 2002 and won her second term in 2003. She recently retired as a vice president of Mississippi State University.

In 2011, Mississippi voters elected two women to statewide office. Fitch won the first of two terms as treasurer. Cindy Hyde-Smith won her first term as state agriculture commissioner. Hyde-Smith had previously served in the state Senate as a Democrat, switching to the Republican Party in 2010 before her run for statewide office.

Hyde-Smith won a second term as agriculture commissioner in 2015. And, in the spring of 2018, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to the U.S. Senate when longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran retired. Hyde-Smith won a special election in November 2018 to finish the six-year term Cochran started. She’s seeking a full term this year, and the same Democrat she defeated in 2018, former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, is pushing for a rematch as he seeks his party’s nomination.

Fitch will be the second woman, after Gandy, to hold two statewide constitutional offices. Tuck holds the distinction of being the first woman elected to more than one term in a constitutional office. Fitch joined Tuck on that short list four years ago.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.