Smith Studying Media Frames of State and Local Women Politicians

22 Jan 2017 4:38 PM | Dane Claussen

(Editor’s Note: Prof. Pete Smith presented his paper, “‘A Lady of Many Firsts’: Press Coverage of the Political Career of Mississippi’s Evelyn Gandy, 1948-83,” at the October 2016 AJHA Convention in St. Petersburg. The Intelligencer asked Smith to tell us more about how he got interested in Gandy, what his research about her means, and why it’s important.)

By Pete Smith, Mississippi State University

I recently found myself in a spur-of-the-moment conversation with a couple of friends about the recent presidential election. I listened carefully as they presented their cases—including the idea that Clinton, against campaign advice, did not show enough emotion in her public appearances. As I quickly pointed out, Clinton has been dogged by a cruel double standard: show even a tiny bit of emotional vulnerability and be perceived as weak, portray a more serious tone (as her male counterparts have and do), and be criticized as being cold and unapproachable. 

In fact, the academic literature in this area reveals that men are often framed according to the political issues they champion, while women politicians are judged on their images—their marital statuses, physical appearances, or specific personality or emotional traits.(1) However, this research, while focusing on women of national reputation, mentions very little about women politicians of state and local importance. 

In an attempt to fill this gap in the scholarly literature, I spent my 2016 spring sabbatical examining, among other projects, the press coverage of Mississippi’s Edythe Evelyn Gandy (1920-2007), whose tenure in state politics stretched over three decades. After being elected to a term in the Mississippi House of Representatives (1948-52), Gandy served as a state assistant attorney general in 1959, two terms as state treasurer (1960-64, 1968-72), state 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 again in 1983. 

I didn't remember the details of Gandy’s career, but I have flashbulb memories of seeing TV interviews and political ads about her statewide campaigns. Those scant memories had real staying power, in any case; three decades later, I set out, using some forty scrapbooks from the Evelyn Gandy Papers (located in the McCain Library & Archives at the University of Southern Mississippi), to investigate how Mississippi’s local newspapers, the AP and UPI wire services, and several regional publications (e.g. the New Orleans Times-Picayune) portrayed Gandy’s image over a 35-year period.

I brought home some 2,000 photocopied pages for analysis, including countless news articles and editorials, political cartoons and photographs, and discovered three significant press frames: First, a “first” frame, which presents women’s political contributions as a novelty; Second, 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, Third, an “iron magnolia” frame, which creates the perception that the woman candidate is either too feminine or too masculine.

The “first” frame, as I call it, was the most persistent of Gandy’s career, beginning with her election as assistant attorney general: “Assistant Attorney General to Be Woman for First Time,” read the awkward headline from a January 1959 issue of the Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial Appeal, as the paper’s male editors attempted to describe something outside of their sense of “normal.”(2) As the press struggled to define Gandy’s success as an elected official, it consistently framed her in the most feminine, and patronizing, of terms: “The attractive Forrest County native appeared in a black dress,” a May 1963 UPI photo cutline noted in reference to Gandy’s appearance during her swearing in ceremony as state welfare commissioner.(3)

Whether referencing her wardrobe or the way she carried herself in public—her “always eloquent style,” as one journalist observed—news coverage of Gandy consistently made the point that she was, above all else, a proper southern lady.(4) For instance, a UPI report published shortly after her 1960 election as state treasurer made reference to Gandy’s “ladylike answer” when she refused to reveal her age.(5) In fact, the moniker of “lady” was perhaps the most consistent of feminine labels used to define Gandy’s image—as a September 1978 headline from the Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial Appeal (published during Gandy’s first gubernatorial campaign) confirms: “The Lady of Jackson and Her Smile.”(6)

Building upon the perception of Gandy as a “gentle lady”—as longtime political columnist W.F. “Bill” Minor referred to her in August 1978—the press used an “iron magnolia” frame to describe her image during the final stages of her political career.(7) In particular, this frame made note of Gandy as a “tough” political opponent, but continued to over-emphasize the same traditional feminine characteristics that defined her as a conventional southern woman. “With a new wardrobe, a new hairdo and a firm handshake,” Jack Elliott of the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News said in a March 1983 editorial, “Evelyn Gandy is on the [campaign] road again.”(8)

In Gandy case, these three press frames were part of the hegemonic process that took into account Mississippi’s history, its culture, and the local and regional press as contributors to the state’s lack of progress. In a broader sense, the results of this analysis (which is forthcoming in a future issue of American Journalism) reveal the value of media history in understanding recent political circumstances—including the idea that powerful women like Hillary Clinton must navigate a much more difficult set of cultural standards if they are to win the day.


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

2. “Assistant Attorney General to be Woman for First Time,” Memphis (TN) Commercial Appeal, 2 January 1959, Edythe Gandy Papers (hereafter abbreviated as “Gandy Paper”), Box 1, Scrapbook 1, University of Southern Mississippi, McCain Library & Archives, Hattiesburg, MS.

3. “Miss Gandy Takes Welfare Office Post,” Mobile (AL) Register, 19 May 1963. Gandy Papers, Box 4, Scrapbook 1.

4. Phil Mullen, “Pisgah Folks Enjoy PTA Banquet, Miss Gandy Gives Inspiring Talk,” Madison County (MS) Herald, no date. Gandy Papers, Box 3, Scrapbook 1.

5. “Woman Treasurer Prepares to Take on Man-Sized Job,” Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger, 22 September 1959. Gandy Papers, Box 1, Scrapbook 1.

6. James Young, “‘The Lady’ of Jackson and Her Smile,” Memphis (TN) Commercial Appeal, 10 September 1978, Gandy Papers, Box 32, Scrapbook 1.

7. Wilson F. Minor, “Eyes on Mississippi: Gandy on the Spot Over Ousting Burgin,” Jackson (MS) Reporter, 3 August 1978, Gandy Papers, Box 31, Scrapbook 1.

8. Jack Elliott, “Evelyn Gandy’s Just Itching to Show Off Her New Running Shoes,” Jackson (MS) Daily News, 6 March 1983, Gandy Papers, Box 40, Scrapbook 1.

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