What’s it like being a woman in the world of South Mississippi politics?
Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco was devastated but determined not to let her male colleagues see her cry.
In January 2004, she was set to become the first female president of the five-member Board of Supervisors because the supervisor in the vice president’s position traditionally moved up and she was vice president.
One of her three daughters, and some of her friends, were in the audience. They wanted to see the historic swearing in.
Instead, one of four male members nominated Supervisor Bobby Eleuterius to continue as president and voted him in for four years.
As a woman, Rockco had been put in her place. It’s not uncommon, say several women who have worked in both business and politics. They’ve dealt with condescending remarks, dismissive attitudes, or even outright hostility from male counterparts.
Just recently, a lobbyist said to Supervisor Beverly Martin, as she tried to introduce him to one of her male colleagues: “Suck my d---.”
Martin said she was stunned. She later concluded the lobbyist, whom she had known for years, was mad at her. It certainly wasn’t a sexual overture, she said, or a joke, as he tried to claim after she called him out on Facebook and the Sun Herald picked up the story.
“It is a way men have of just dismissing women,” Martin said. “ . . . The common denominator here is the good ol’ boy system.”
For these women and others in politics, a saying popularized in 2017, applies: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Rockco is in her 18th year as a county supervisor. She did get that president’s position — two years later, not four, when a majority of the board decided she should have the job.
Although the year is 2018 and more women than ever are in the workforce, women in politics are still a rarity. With the election of Martin and Angel Kibler-Middleton, the Harrison County board in 2016 became the first in the state with a female majority.
Of 410 elected supervisors in Mississippi, only 16 are women, the Mississippi Association of Supervisors confirms. The Mississippi Municipal League counts about 60 female mayors in its 292 member cities.
Different for women
“I was the only female mayor on the Coast post-Katrina and we were dealing with an extraordinary disaster,” said Connie Moran, who served as Ocean Springs mayor from 2005-17. “ I had opinions, I had questions, I didn’t back down. I didn’t sit back and bat my eyelashes. That’s not the way I was raised.”
Moran’s opinions were not always welcome, most famously when she insisted a new bridge between Ocean Springs and Biloxi needed a pedestrian lane. She successfully pushed for the walkway, which is today one of the most prized features of post-Katrina reconstruction, over the objections of state highway engineers and some of her counterparts on the Coast.
“It was tough,” she said. “They didn’t like a woman telling them what to do.”
Then there was an argument over colors for the bridge. A.J. Holloway, then Biloxi mayor, wanted a khaki color with what Moran described as a “hideous” pea green accent color. Ocean Springs had settled on cream and a teal green accent color.
A male engineer from the Mississippi Department of Transportation took city officials down to the waterfront to show them the colors. He told Moran: “Don’t you say anything, Mayor. We’re going to make them think it’s their selection.”
He brought Holloway around to the cream and teal.
“If I had been a man,” Moran said, “they would have listened to me and adopted the colors just like they did for (the engineer). When he pointed to them, it was fine.”
Struggle is real
Despite these obstacles, the women said they generally work well with men. Rockco, who is 63 years old, finds younger generations more accepting of female leaders.
“I’ve had bad experiences, too, but I find those experiences come from small men, small-minded men, men with a lack of intelligence and self-confidence,” she said. “They have to feel more powerful than a female counterpart.
“Men who are intelligent and well-read and confident, they have no prejudice, I think. They accept and understand that women bring a whole new perspective to leadership, to compassion, to the world’s problems.
“If we have open minds, we can work together and be so powerful. We think differently, and thank God for that.”
It was a man who made sure Rockco became the first female president of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors. The nominating committee refused to put her name in contention.
Stone County Supervisor Scott Strickland said he studied the bylaws and learned he could nominate Rockco from the floor.
“Any time we need something, Connie is there,” he said. “The nominating committee, I thought, didn’t give her her due diligence. They nominated a guy who hadn’t served as long as her and wasn’t as active.
“They just didn’t want a woman. I took offense to that.”
He likes to give credit for her election to the entire MAS because the majority did, after all, put her in office for 2017. This year, the first black female, Peggy Calhoun of Hinds County, is serving as president.
Beverly Martin feels the climate is changing, in a good way, for women. She does not regret calling out the lobbyist, Scott Levanway, on his behavior, although she did not mean to cost him work. (Levanway resigned as lobbyist for the city of Gulfport and the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport Authority.)
“Shine a light on it,” Martin said, “because it’s been in the dark so long. You didn’t want to be seen as as troublemaker or difficult to work with. But the climate has changed enough now that we don’t have to shrug it off or put our heads down. The fear of losing your job or profession is diminishing, hopefully.”