It would be three full decades after women earned the right to vote before they could serve on juries in Georgia.
And White County was ground zero for the debate on female jurors.
Much of the controversy centered on whether the word “men” could include women. Georgia law stated that jury commissioners should select taxpayers who were “upright and intelligent men.” Some legal experts contended this could include women, pointing to a Georgia Court of Appeals ruling in 1914 that “men” also could be interpreted as “women.” The 1945 state Constitution allowed the General Assembly “to require jury service of women,” thus setting the stage for courts or somebody to untangle the conflict.
Some in the legislature had sought to do that since 1937, when bills were introduced to make it clear women could serve. Lawmakers, however, refused to approve any. State Attorney General Eugene Cook interpreted the law as saying women weren’t to serve as jurors, disagreeing with the interpretation that the word “men” could include women.
Nevertheless, White County paved the way for women on juries. In October 1950, jury commissioners appointed 20 women from the tax lists to the jury pool for the upcoming superior court session presided over by Judge Herbert Edmondson of Gainesville. Of those, Eula Carroll, Margie Nell Pharris, Edith Palmer and Naomi Allen were empaneled as jurors, the first time in state history that women had been named to a jury panel.
Judge Edmondson said he would allow, but not require, the women to serve. Three of the four declined to serve, and Mrs. Allen asked to be excused after she had joined 11 men in the jury box to try a case. She was quoted as saying she considered jury duty a privilege and a responsibility women should have, but “I didn’t want to be the first.”
The other three women indicated they feared men would resent women in a jury box.
Meanwhile, the issue simmered in other jurisdictions. Pierre Howard, a lawyer who later would serve as lieutenant governor, and Jim Webb, challenged a jury hearing a larceny case against their client because women had been excluded.
In Hall County, jury commissioners failed to add women or blacks to the jury pool.
It would be the next year, April 12, 1951, before a woman served on a jury in Georgia. That, too, would be in White County. She was Mary Bell Tinius. The state legislature still had not passed a bill officially allowing women to serve. That wouldn’t happen until more than two years later, Dec. 21, 1953, when Gov. Eugene Talmadge reluctantly signed the law the General Assembly had passed.
The late Jane Eve Wilheit, a writer for the Gainesville Daily Times at the time, said, “Take it from Gainesville women, White County’s board of jury commissioners deserve a rousing round of commendation for becoming the first in the state to place women on jury eligibility lists. Women here, club leaders and housewives, young and old, almost unanimously approve the action. They hail it as a definite progressive step for White County and perhaps the start of a statewide trend.”
Mrs. George Newton, president of the local League of Women Voters, praised the step, as did Mildred Mealor, a statewide leader in the League.
Some weren’t so sure, however. Mrs. Sidney O. Smith Sr., a League board member, was quoted as saying, “As far as justice is concerned, it’s the thing to do. But I would like to see it delayed as long as possible in this area so women can retain some of their charm.”
Katherine Dozier, a retired educator, said, “I guess I’m too old-fashioned to take to such ideas.”
Betty Gail Gunter, countered, however, noting, “Both men and women are tried in court ... and both men and women should serve on juries.”
Mrs. Hollis Turk said, “First things come first. And a homemaker’s duty is to her home and children. Women are certainly capable of serving on juries, but they must not put such duties secondary to their duties at home.”
Before White County’s Mrs. Tinius broke the barrier by serving on a jury, Georgia was one of only 10 states that barred female jurors, all of them in the South.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.