Teaching Our Journal

“A Lady of Many Firsts”: Press Coverage of the Political Career of Mississippi’s Evelyn Gandy, 1948-83

Vol. 34, No. 4, 2017

By Pete Smith, Mississippi State University

For much of the latter half of the 20th century, Mississippi politician Evelyn Gandy was perhaps the most recognized name in the state. In 1948, she was elected to a term in the Mississippi House of Representatives. After a decade of private law practice, she served as a state assistant attorney general in 1959, before serving the first of two terms as state treasurer (1960–64, 1968–72). She also served the state as commissioner of public welfare (1964–67) and commissioner of insurance (1972–76). Her political career hit its peak when she was elected lieutenant governor (1976–80), an office she held before making two unsuccessful bids for the state’s highest office in 1979 and 1983. “If she weren’t a woman she would have been elected Governor,” longtime journalist W. F. “Bill” Minor stated in an interview with the Hattiesburg (MS) American at the time of Gandy’s death in 2007 (to supranuclear palsy). “She was a victim of the syndrome in Mississippi that women would not be elevated to high political office. Apparently, lieutenant governor is the ceiling.”

This study analyzed press coverage of Gandy’s career (from 1948, when she first won election to the Mississippi House of Representatives, to 1983, the year her second bid for governor ended), with emphasis placed on articles in which Gandy and/or her political campaigns were the subject of the story (as indicated by the headline or the amount of spaced dedicated to Gandy). The textual analysis included both news and feature articles (and headlines), photographs (and cutlines), and editorials and cartoons from small town and metro Mississippi newspapers, newspapers with a regional reach (e.g., Memphis Commercial Appeal, New Orleans Times-Picayune), and the AP and UPI wire services. Both language and image were studied, with attention paid to descriptions or portrayals of Gandy’s image (e.g., her physical appearance), or editorial assessments of her campaigns and effectiveness as a state politician.

The research uncovered three consistent gender frames dominating the press coverage: (1) a “first” frame, which presents women’s political contributions as an anomaly or novelty; (2) frames emphasizing stereotypical, feminine characteristics, whether that be Gandy’s physical appearance (e.g., her height, weight, dress, or her facial features), her manner of speaking (e.g., being “soft-spoken”), or the titles assigned to her (e.g., “lady”); and, (3) an “iron magnolia” frame, an attempt by the news media to acknowledge Gandy’s growing assertiveness as a political leader, and, at the same time, continue to overemphasize specific stereotypical, feminine characteristics.

Accordingly, the research reinforced previously published scholarship that suggests a double standard in the news framing of women politicians, which could hold negative implications for women who choose to run for public office—whether those positions hold local, state, or national importance. This study also offered new insight into the local, state, and regional press coverage of women’s political careers and the influence of that coverage on their images and campaigns.

After students have read the article, use the following questions to facilitate class discussion:

  • Using at least one example from the article, explain how the process of framing works.
  • Explain in detail the three gender frames used by the press to portray Evelyn Gandy (using at least one example of each frame from the article).
  • Explain the parallels between the findings of this study and those found in the academic literature pertaining to women politicians. In other words, what similarities can you draw between how the press framed Gandy and what the literature says about the framing of the modern woman politician?
  • What similarities and differences existed between how Gandy was framed in her obituaries and how she was portrayed by the press during her career?
  • Given the time period and circumstances in which she lived, what possible reasons can we attribute to Gandy’s political accomplishments?

 

Exercise 1

The careers of former Kentucky Lt. Governor Thelma Stovall (1919-1994) and Evelyn Gandy followed similar paths. Like Gandy, Stovall was the first woman from her home state to be elected to that office (serving one term as Lt. Governor from December 1975-Decmeber 1979). Stovall and Gandy also served as Lt. Governors for their respective states during the same time period (mid-to-late 1970s). And, like Gandy, Stovall ran for governor in the late 1970s, but lost in the Democratic primary.

With that information in mind, use the digital and/or microfilm newspaper archive at your college or university library to draw a sample of news articles from leading state or local newspapers (e.g. Louisville Courier-Journal, Lexington Herald, Lexington Leader) that covered Stovall and/or her career as Kentucky’s Lt. Governor during the late 1970s and her run for governor shortly thereafter.

  • What gender frames were used to describe Stovall and/her role as Lt. Governor and during her run for governor?
  • Note the similarities and differences between the frames used to describe Stovall and those used to portray Gandy.

 

Exercise 2

Investigate the political history of your home state and make note of the women who were elected to state (or national) office, if any, and what offices they held. Then, visit Rutgers University’s Center for the American Woman and Politics website at http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/ to get a count of how many women from your state currently hold positions in the state legislature, as members of Congress, or as governor.

  • Have the number of women politicians (at any or all levels of government) increased or decreased over time?
  • What historical or contemporary factors can we attribute to the increase, decline, or overall lack of progress in the number of women who hold leadership positions in your state?
  • Using the Center for Women and Politics as a guide, make an annotated list of the Center’s resources to encourage more research and education into women and politics.

 

Exercise 3

The website Makers.com holds an interesting collection of short video interviews with American and international women politicians and lawmakers at the local, state, and national levels. Click this link to access the webpage with those interviews: https://www.makers.com/browse/women-in-politics.

Select a few (3-4) to watch, and then discuss the following questions:

  • In terms of their backgrounds, what common experiences or themes do the women share?
  • What common challenges did they face when running for office?
  • What common challenges did they face while in office?
  • What lessons can be taken from their shared experiences?

 

Suggested Resources

Karrin Vasby Anderson, “‘Rhymes with Blunt’: Pornification and U.S. Political Culture,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 14, no. 2 (2011): 327-68.

Diana B. Carlin and Kelly L. Winfrey, “Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage,” Communication Studies 60, no. 4 (September–October 2009): 326-43.

Susan J. Carroll, “Women in State Government: Historical Overview and Current Trends.” In The Book of the States, edited by The Council of State Governments. Lexington, KY, 2004. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/womeninstategov_overviewandtrends.pdf

Yasmine Dabbous and Amy Ladley, “A Spine of Steel and a Heart of Gold: Newspaper Coverage of the First Female Speaker of the House,” Journal of Gender Studies 19, no. 2 (June 2010): 181-94.

Robert M. Entman, “Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power,” Journal of Communication 57, no. 1 (March 2007): 163-73.

Lanier Frush Holt, “Hillary and Barack: Will Atypical Candidates Lead to Atypical Coverage,” The Howard Journal of Communications 23, no. 3 (2012): 272-87.