A chink in the good ol’ boys’ armor

I remember both my grandfathers very well.  Both served in the military during WWI, and their grandfathers fought in the American Civil War. With that perspective, one can readily comprehend how quickly time moves along.

Nowadays, at age 59, I see things at flea markets that are touted as antiques, yet I may have used some of those things early in life. And all the nostalgic stories of yesteryear are easily sliced to ribbons by memories of having been there. I mention it here in regard to my mother, who died on July 15.

Jean Muirhead was elected to serve in the Mississippi Legislature in 1968, having only recently been also admitted to the state bar. At the time there were only seven women in the Magnolia state who were licensed to practice law. But it was the 60’s, and things were changing fast.

One of her first legislative attention-getters was to break with tradition in regard to the school-age kids who served as assistants in the House and the Senate. They were, they are still, called pages. But in the halcyon days of Deep South thinking, before “the nigras” began howling to be recognized as people, before Yankee television reporters could invade at any moment and send live, color images of the truth back to their anchors’ desks in New York City, life in my home state was vastly different than it is today.

It was a time of male domination. There were only seven female lawyers? Today there are hundreds! And although it never really felt like it to me at the time, as a kid growing up in the late 50’s and 60’s, repression was everywhere. (I’m not about to attempt to explain life through the eyes of a black Mississippian. I am white; but I’ve got my own stories.)

I well remember as a teenager the nagging sensation of living inside an inescapable falseness. Things were not as they seemed. On Sunday mornings I would attend Sunday school and “big church” with my family. And before “big church” began, outside the sanctuary the deacons smoked cigarettes at the front door. Sometimes the preacher would walk through the crowd and cloud of blue smoke, nodding with tight lips at his coterie of ordained sinners. He would never smoke; nor would he condemn those who did, at least not one on one. He would wait until he stood in sanctuary of his pulpit, there to harangue the entire congregation on the evils of tobacco. The deacons on the front row would then clear their throats, cough, and nod in agreement.

Women were seen only in the pews or the choir loft. They had no place on the dais. God’s word was men’s word, and females were not considered astute enough to preach and teach on the complexities of Western religion. Their place was in the home, cooking pot roast, rearing the children, pleasing their husbands.

In those days, drug stores had entrances around back labeled “Colored.” The few public restrooms available were similarly identified. If you are under the age of 30 and are reading this, you probably find it difficult to understand. But repression and segregation were the orders of the day. The world was controlled by white men, no matter how ignorant and brutish they happened to be. Boys wore flat-top haircuts, and girls wore skirts, not pants. Individualism was an arcane and unholy route, and those who took it faced universal condemnation.

In the movie “Patton,” G.C. Scott portrays the mercurial WWII general, George S. Patton. In one scene enemy airplanes begin strafing his headquarters in N. Africa. The planes make a couple of passes over the village until finally a direct hit is made on the building wherein Patton is watching the action from a window. Suddenly plaster and debris is raining down on his head. Grabbing at his revolver in its holster Patton growls, “All right now, by God, THAT’S ENOUGH!” He jumps through an open window onto the top of a truck, and then down to the ground where he stands in the street and fires relentlessly at the planes with his handheld revolver, cursing with every shot.

Well, I doubt my mother did much cursing on the Senate floor, but one day she did realize, “by God, THAT’S ENOUGH!” In glaring, shocking revolt, she appointed a female page to serve her, even though it was not girl’s week. Boys could serve as pages throughout the legislative session; but girls got the opportunity during only one of those weeks, until, that is, Jean Muirhead came to town.

Later she would disrupt the ol’ boys club even more. A bill had come to the floor that had to do with state court procedures. My mother scribbled out an amendment to the bill and took it forward to the secretary of the senate. For other reasons the bill was apparently important to the entrenched powers, the men who wanted the bill passed right then. The secretary read the amendment, which struck the word “male” from the text. If you have never been present when our lawmakers are working, you may not grasp how chaotic it sometimes is. Half the time it appears no one is paying any attention. (The other half they are not.)

So, amid the usual confusion, when the secretary called for the vote, the bill passed. It then was moved directly to the House, where, owing to the momentum of the thing, it passed there too. The Ol’ Boys realized they’d been snookered, but to resist would have been embarrassing, and probably futile. There was a chink in the armor, and because of the passage of that bill, women could at last serve on state court juries. It may seem a trifle today, but at the time it was yet another indication that in the homeland of Confederate President Jefferson Finis Davis, a new day was dawning.

(Scott Muirhead lives in Maggie Valley and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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