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OPINION | REX NELSON: Arkansas’ stateswomen

by Rex Nelson | January 28, 2023 at 2:58 a.m.

The women of the Arkansas Legislature have finally received their due thanks to Steve and Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville. The University of Arkansas Press recently released their "Stateswomen: A Centennial History of Arkansas Women Legislators 1922-2022."

Lindsley Smith is among the 146 women covered in the 395-page book, having served three terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives beginning in 2005.

Lindsley, a Birmingham, Ala., native, taught communications at Ferris State University in Michigan and Clemson University in South Carolina before marrying Steve in 1994 and moving to Fayetteville. She received a law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1998, worked at a law firm for a time and returned to academia in 2002 to teach legal and political communication. After her House service, she served six years as communications director for the city of Fayetteville.

In 2015, Lindsley became president of Oxbridge Research Associates, a research, consulting and academic publishing firm.

Steve, a UA professor emeritus of communication and the author of nine previous books, served in the Arkansas House from 1971-75. He later became widely known as chief of staff for Arkansas Attorney General Bill Clinton from 1977-79 and then as executive assistant during Clinton's first term as governor from 1979-81.

"Women have always been an important part of the Arkansas past, and our political, economic, social and cultural history have all shaped and been shaped by women," the Smiths write. "However, women have not always been part of the Arkansas story because women's influence, voices and contributions to the state's history have been minimized, misinterpreted or completely ignored in Arkansas history textbooks for generations. And political history always has been particularly resistant to considering the role of gender or the contributions of women.

"State-approved Arkansas history textbooks represented the state-sanctioned version of civic truth, and the cultural transmission of these womanless historical narratives in public school textbooks assumed that what women had done was trivial. The message was that men were the important political actors, while women were politically marginal and contributed little beyond the domestic sphere."

In her foreword, UA political science professor Janine Parry points out the state's long history of producing women who served in leadership roles.

"When most people think of women's progress in American politics--the central actors and pivotal developments in this slow-motion revolution--they do not think of Arkansas," Parry writes. "This is a pity, as it is a place of a surprising number of both firsts and rares. It extended statewide (if partial) suffrage rights to women two years in advance of ratification of the 19th Amendment, for example, making it the first Southern state to do so.

"It also was the first of any state to elect a woman to the U.S. Senate. Although Sen. Hattie Caraway's service began in the usual way--as a temporary stand-in for a dead husband--it ended with election to a full six-year term in 1932, followed by re-election in 1938."

Parry also lists:

• Maud Dunlap Duncan, elected mayor of Winslow on an all-woman ticket in 1925.

• Joycelyn Elders, the second woman and first African American to serve as U.S. surgeon general.

• Little Rock Mayor Lottie Shackelford, one of the earliest Black women to lead a major city.

• U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the first woman to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"Arkansas also, of course, was the longtime residence of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman to win a nationwide popular vote (if not to assume the presidency)," Parry writes. "If most of these figures have been somewhat overlooked, the nearly 150 women (as compared to thousands of men) who have served in the state General Assembly have been all but invisible. Such an oversight is not unique to Arkansas. Despite being the central decision makers for education, public health, transportation and criminal justice policy in the 50 states, state legislators are everywhere unheralded and--frankly--unchronicled.

"For observers of women in politics, the gap is particularly vexing because American women have had (relatively) greater success accessing these posts as compared with those of higher profile. ... Comprehensive accounts of which women make it into these overwhelmingly masculine spaces and what they do when they get there have been too heavy a lift."

Parry describes "Stateswomen" as "a monumental contribution." I can't imagine that any state has a more comprehensive account of women who have served in the legislative branch.

"We believe that these 146 women legislators have enriched Arkansas' political history and that their stories need to be told and remembered," the Smiths write. "The brief biographies included in this book should be only a starting point for empirical investigations that explore such issues as voting records and issue analysis, campaign strategies, committee work and floor debate. ... Because so little has been written about Arkansas women legislators, there is much more to explore and explicate.

"Visibility is vital, or in the popular vernacular, 'if you can see it, you can be it.' Our greatest hope is that the biographical entries of the women legislators in this book will tell a new story and that its reception will inspire more girls and women to become involved in politics and public affairs."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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