Evelyn Gandy: A Pioneering Mississippi Woman

By: Ashlynn Steiner, Dipper Nobles, and Madison Dailey

Author's Note: This biography relies heavily on primary source research from the E. Evelyn Gandy Collection at the USM Special Collections and Archives. Please be aware that some interactive links lead to specific archival records, which are not digitized and can only be accessed by appointment through the McCain Library and Archive at the University of Southern Mississippi.

On August 18th, 1982, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s director, Mrs. Madel Morgan, reached out to the woman of many firsts in the state of Mississippi, Miss Evelyn Gandy. Only two years after the end of Governor Gandy’s tenure in office, Morgan’s letter recognizes her as “one of the best-known of Mississippi’s public officials.” Gandy, despite her gender, age, and marital status, made a name for herself not only in the state of Mississippi but throughout the United States. The Department of Archives and History acknowledged early on the importance and sentiment of preserving both personal and professional records of Evelyn Gandy for Mississippi State’s history.

Edythe Evelyn Gandy was born on September 4th, 1920, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. During her teenage years, she attended Hattiesburg High School. From there, she went on to spend two years at Mississippi Southern College, today known as the University of Southern Mississippi. After graduating from Mississippi’s Southern College, she furthered her political education at the University of Mississippi Law School, where she graduated in 1943, earning her Juris Doctorate while being the only woman in her class. It was here when Gandy began her long line of firsts.

In May of 1942, Gandy became the first woman Student Body President of Mississippi Law School for the 1942-1943 school year. The school announced her victory in a newspaper article along with her many other achievements during her time at Mississippi Law School. In 1939, at just 18 years old, Gandy delivered 96 speeches for Governor Paul B. Johnson during the Race for Governor. She was known for being a talented debater, journalist, and speaker.

Following her graduation, she gained recognition while working under Senator Theodore Bilbo for three years before returning to her hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1946. Upon moving back home, Gandy ran for the House of Representatives for Forrest County in the summer of 1947. Officially launching her political career, she won a seat in the House and remained there from 1947 to 1952. Most notably, Gandy established legislation for the state’s Junior College System, the University of Mississippi’s Medical School as well as the University Hospital, and provided full financial assistance to the permanently disabled people of Mississippi.

An article in the Journal of Mississippi History titled “Women in the Mississippi Legislature” states that by the time Evelyn Gandy reached legislature, there had only been 52 women to have ever filled a position at the legislative level. The article also noted only a limited number of women held office for extended periods. Evelyn Gandy's early career, characterized by her service under Senator Theodore Bilbo and her election to the Mississippi House of Representatives, not only demonstrated her political talent but also laid the foundation for her pioneering path in a predominantly male legislature. While gaining recognition, Gandy became associated with the segregationist ideology of the Southern Democrat Party. Gandy notes in an oral history for the University of Southern Mississippi that she nor Senator Bilbo were concerned with race on a personal level. The beginning of Gandy’s political career is one characterized by evolving ideas concerning gender as well as race in the state of Mississippi.

Since the beginning of Gandy’s political career, she was focused on issues typical of the Southern Democratic Party such as better support for education, welfare, and the elderly. Her stance on important issues paved the way for her to take the position as an attorney at the Mississippi Department of Public Welfare, a role she occupied from 1953 to 1958. In 1959, Gandy took on the role of being the first female Assistant Attorney General for the Mississippi Department of Public Welfare. Shortly after, in 1960, Gandy climbed the ranks as State Treasurer until 1964. She became the first woman ever elected to a statewide office. During her time, she began a program to guarantee the fair disbursement of state funds among all banks operating in Mississippi. Without abandoning her role as treasurer, Gandy ran for Lieutenant Governor in 1963 but lost to Carroll Gartin during the second primaries. After her tenure as State Treasurer, Gandy ran for the position as the Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Public Welfare from 1964 to 1967. She dedicated herself to enhancing statewide assistance programs for parents with dependent children and people in need of nursing home care.

In April of 1967, Gandy resigned as Commissioner in order to run for the position of State Treasurer once again. In 1968 she would begin her second term as State Treasurer and hold the role for four more years. During her second term in office, Gandy implemented a program that invested state funds in bank accounts that would accumulate interest, which has since earned Mississippi taxpayers millions of dollars. At the end of her tenure as Treasurer, Gandy attempted the election as Commissioner of Insurance for the state of Mississippi. Her main focus as Insurance Commissioner was to improve the government regulation on insurance companies and to raise the standards for insurance agents.

Evelyn Gandy decided in 1975 that she would once again run for the office of Lieutenant Governor after 12 years of building a long, successful reputation in the Mississippi public office. In 1976, she would become the first woman to ever become Lieutenant Governor. However, during her race for governor, she was ridiculed by her opponents based on her gender, marital status, and her previous affiliation with the racist and segregationist, Senator Theodore Bilbo. In one newspaper article writing in favor of the “working man’s” candidate, Cliff Finch, Gandy is referred to as “a protégé of racist Senator Theodore Bilbo.” After openly addressing her association with Senator Bilbo and expressing remorse for her past racist and segregationist beliefs, she reaffirmed her current position, emphasizing that those prior convictions no longer reflect her character and role as a politician.

During her time as governor, Gandy focused on state-wide issues such as audit accountability of public funds, better care, and services for the mentally disabled, along with income and sales tax relief. While in office as governor, she served over a 52, all-male Senate. Gandy can be thanked for the Sixteenth Section Reform Act of 1978 which aimed to improve how land leasing worked and resulted in a substantial increase in school revenues, growing from about two to three million dollars per year. Evelyn Gandy's path as the first female Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi, her unwavering commitment to the welfare of all citizens, and her ability to overcome challenges set a pioneering example for countless women to follow.

In 1979, Gandy decided to run for Lieutenant Governor once again but lost to William Winter, with Winter winning over 56% of the vote. Years later in a 2007 article by local Hattiesburg news station WDAM, Winter acknowledged he had a gender advantage during the 1979 race, and he hoped that such circumstances wouldn’t exist today. After her unsuccessful campaign, Gandy was appointed the Deputy for Human Resources of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. Gandy’s unsuccessful bid for the governor's office was not the end of her political career. She remained steadfast and active within the politics of Mississippi while encouraging other women to also become involved in politics. Gandy's commitment to public service extended beyond her political career as she continued to play pivotal roles on various boards and commissions, including the Public Employee's Retirement Board and the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women.

In retrospect, the life and career of Edythe Evelyn Gandy represents a remarkable journey of perseverance, trailblazing achievements, and unwavering dedication to the state of Mississippi. Gandy never married or had children, completely dedicating her life to the citizens of Mississippi. Despite facing considerable challenges rooted in her gender and past associations, she rose above adversity and became the first of many women in Mississippi's political landscape. After her tenure as Lieutenant Governor, in 1982, Mississippi's Department of Archives and History contacted her to gather and preserve her personal and professional artifacts, ensuring they would be available for those interested in her career and legacy in the future. Evelyn Gandy has collections at both the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, as well as the McCain Library and Archive at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her life is admired by many for her dedication toward improving the lives of the people and breaking down barriers for future generations of women in politics; her legacy is undeniably worth preserving.