In the retrospective analysis that follows a national election, one clear theme emerged this year from pundits and experts across the country.
This was the “Year of the Woman,” electorally speaking. A large turnout of women voters was credited with helping a number of candidates get elected, and women were cited as a key part of the coalition of voters who helped re-elect President Barack Obama.
The result of November’s races mean the 113th Congress will have at least 20 female senators, the most ever in history. The U.S. House of Representatives also will hold a record number of congresswomen this term, with at least 77.
But while pundits, journalists and political analysts trumpet the results of the election as a boon for female voters and candidates, the picture is different in Bell County, particularly on the commissioner’s court. Made up of one county judge and four commissioners, the court has been dominated by men for nearly its entire existence.
“It is always a challenge to break into the ‘good ol’ boys club’,” said Irene Andrews, who ran as the Democratic candidate for the Precinct 1 seat this month.
Andrews lost to Republican Richard Cortese by a margin of more than 30 percentage points. Prior to Andrews, two women ran for seats on the commissioner’s court, in 2000 and 2004. Both failed to get elected.
While women make up more than 50 percent of Bell County’s population, according to the 2010 census, they are largely under-represented as elected officials at the county level. Between 1850 and 2000, only 13 women were elected to a county level-office, said Bell County Attorney Rick Miller. “It’s a short list.”
Using historical records to compile a list of people who have held office in Bell County as far back as the 1800s, Miller has created an extensive database of the county’s electoral history. His research shows that while elected women officials may be under-represented in Bell County, they certainly have not been absent from its political history.
One of the earliest women to hold a political county office was Anna Upshaw, who held the post of Bell County treasurer in 1929, about nine years after women earned the right to vote. According to the records complied by Miller, Upshaw was appointed to the post to fill the seat for her husband, W.W. Upshaw. Anna Upshaw’s service as treasurer was shortlived, and ended a little more than a year later, likely when her husband’s term expired.
Not too long after Upshaw, Lois Barber was elected as the county treasurer. She served from 1931 through 1952, and was one of the first women elected in Bell County, Miller said.
Barber, however, appears to be an exception and many women who held elected county-level offices were appointed to those positions after their husbands either died, or became too ill to hold office, such as Mrs. Sam Moore, who was appointed in 1948 to fill the term of her late husband, according to Miller’s research.
“This was a very common phenomenon historically in the U.S.” said Pamela Paxton, professor of sociology and government at the University of Texas in Austin. “For example, most of the first congresswomen in the U.S. were appointed by governors to their late husband’s seat after his death.”
That phenomenon is also responsible in what appears to be the only two instances where women have served as Bell County commissioners. In 1964, Mae Latham was appointed to fill the remainder of her husband, R.B. Latham’s, term for Precinct 2. Miller’s research also showed a Mrs. Joe Aycock was appointed to the position of Precinct 3 commissioner in 1963 after her husband resigned for health reasons and later died. She only served out the remainder of his term.
Other women who ended up as office holders in Bell County after being appointed to fill their husband’s terms were Myrtle Crow, who served as a justice of the peace for three months in the 1930s, and Mrs. W.C. Wallace, who served for eight months in 1972 after succeeding her husband.
Paxton said that, generally, few woman appointed to fill their husband’s seats decided to run for re-election.
“Especially in a society with conservative gender norms, a wife is easily seen as a ‘surrogate’ for her late husband without significant political views of her own,” she said. “Today, widowed wives of politicians (or daughters of politicians) are more likely to be seen as independent of their husbands and fathers, much as the sons of politicians are seen as independent from their fathers.”
More women serve
Miller’s historical research showed that starting as early as the 1950s, Bell County began to see more women elected to office. Bell County elected multiple women to the office of county clerk, beginning with Ruby McKee in 1950, and continuing with the elections of Vada Sutton and current clerk Shelly Coston.
The office of county tax collector has been held by a woman since 1987 with Betty Willingham, Janell Cosper Burson and Sharon Long holding the office successively.
Other notable women elected to office in the county include District Clerk Dolphyn “Daffy” Carpenter, who served from 1973 to 1994, Shelia Fe Norman, who was elected to the same position after Carpenter, and 164th District Judge Martha Trudo, the first female district judge in Bell County, also elected in 1994.
In the end, while women may not be as well represented proportionally as men are, they still make up an important part of Bell County’s political history, possibly paving the way for more female candidates for county-level office.
“Women, people of color and the disabled are familiar with behaviors like being ignored, discounted and interrupted when speaking with those in power,” Andrews said. “We understand the resistance to change, but change will come, even to the all-male Bell County Commissioner’s Court, and when it does, I encourage people to welcome, and not fear, a more diverse group of leaders at the county level.”