Put simply, who is the next Gertrude Williams?
Anniston has held eight mayoral elections since Williams ran City Hall with grace and dignity, but none of the elected have been women. The office has been held by an all-men’s club of Bill Robison, David Dethrage, Gene Stedham, Chip Howell, Gene Robinson and Vaughn Stewart. In fact, look around Calhoun County: Alberta McCrory resides in the big chair in little Hobson City, but there is no sisterhood of City Hall mayoral leaders. She’s a solo act. Two women, Ann Welch (Anniston) and Cristy Humphries (Oxford), were noteworthy mayoral candidates in last year’s elections, but both were steamrolled on Election Day.
Oxford, with Leon Smith entrenched, king-like, in City Hall, has never had a female mayor. Neither has Jacksonville. The county is a microcosm of national politics in America, which has never had a female president, and state-level politics in Alabama, whose lone female governor Lurleen Wallace was a pacesetter for 1960s gender equality but also a puppet for her deplorable husband, who was prevented by state law from running for re-election. (Given Lurleen’s failing health and George Wallace’s infernal meddling, it’s remarkable that she accomplished what she did while in office.)
As for Williams, who died 10 years ago this summer, she remains — solidly — the quintessential example of a qualified, determined and dedicated mayor in Calhoun County.
If she were still with us, she would have been the perfect keynote speaker at the county’s Women’s Summit on Government Leadership this week in Jacksonville. In fairness, there was no shortage of female politicians from the county in attendance: Barbara Boyd, a Democratic state legislator; Millie Harris, an Anniston City Council member; Karen Roper, the county’s revenue commissioner; Sheila Gilbert, the county’s Democratic chairwoman; and McCrory, the Hobson City mayor.
But Williams’ presence would have been gloriously appealing.
Even in death, she remains one of those Calhoun Countians remembered for what she did for those around her. She taught for 41 years in public schools, including 19 at Anniston High and 10 at Jacksonville High. She served on the Anniston City Council. In 1980, when Mayor Norwood Hodges resigned, the council elected her to serve out his term. She then served a term of her own before retiring from politics and eventually moving to Florida. In 1981, the Alabama Women’s Political Caucus named her one of five outstanding Alabama women. Centennial Memorial Park, decorated by the aging brick columns of the old Anniston High, exists in part due to Williams’ diligence.
In 1996, the Anniston City Council remembered Williams with a day in her honor. That December afternoon, The Star’s editorial page said, “Though she may no longer be a full-time resident of this community, Williams remains one of Anniston’s stars.”
In 2003, after her death, former Councilman John Norton told The Star that Williams “had the ability to make people search for common ground even if they had diverse opinions on an issue.” Robison, the former mayor, said, “When Gertrude was mayor, there never was a question of a hidden agenda. She had all of Anniston’s citizens’ needs close to heart.”
(In a historical footnote, there was a time when Anniston’s City Hall and its U.S. Army post were both led by women. Here, 1980 will be remembered for Williams’ first days as mayor and Maj. Gen. Mary E. Clarke’s last days as commander of Fort McClellan, America’s first major military installation to be led by a female officer.)
Politics, as Stewart, Anniston’s rookie mayor, is surely learning, often is a nasty business of bruised egos and competing interests. It’s a 24/7 grind of never-ceasing phone calls and decisions, many of which are unpopular. Indecisiveness is exposed.
If nothing else, women, particularly those with school-age children and traditional parenting roles, face enormous and obvious challenges when they take on positions of civic leadership. That, along with entrenched Neanderthal-like beliefs a few still hold about the fairer sex, is just one reason why female mayors aren’t more prominent than they are, or should be.
This county’s largest cities are still awaiting the arrival of the next Gertrude Williams. They’ll be better for it when she’s here.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.