Lucy Somerville Howorth once described herself as a lawyer, politician, and feminist. She believed that girls and women should have the same access to college, a career, and professional promotions as society offered to boys and men. It really was not a radical idea in her day, but many women were afraid to be called a “feminist.” Not Lucy, who once said, “I glory in being a feminist.”
So, how did a girl born on July 1, 1895, in the small town of Greenville, Mississippi, come to have such ideas. Her parents were a part of it. Her father was an open-minded civil engineer and her mother, Nellie Nugent Somerville, was nationally known as a temperance and woman suffrage leader. Her mother had great plans for Lucy and saw to it that she had a good schooling in Greenville and had access to great books. Lucy once said her greatest thrill in life was realizing that she could read. She said she learned her colors by sorting out her mother’s suffrage pamphlets and she attended her first suffrage convention as a babe in arms. In 1912 she entered Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia and organized and led the suffrage movement on campus. After graduation in 1916, she spent one year as a psychology instructor at her college and then one year at home doing war work during World War I.
In 1918 she went to New York to attend Columbia University for graduate work in psychology but decided she really did not like the field. She worked for a short time in a war plant in New York City where she first saw how bosses mistreated working women. That experience led to a job as a research assistant in the Industrial Department of the Young Women’s Christian Association. She reported on working conditions for women in textile factories, attended working women’s industrial conferences, and helped organize working girls’ clubs. Having lived a rather privileged life up to that time, Lucy saw a whole new world and later said that it was in New York that she learned to be “a whole human being.”
Lucy decided to study law but was denied admission to Columbia’s law school because she was a woman. It was an experience she never forgot. In 1920 she returned to Mississippi to attend the law school at the University of Mississippi. Also that year the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified and gave women the right to vote. She finished at the top of her class in 1922 but she struggled to gain clients in her early practice in Cleveland, Mississippi, and later in her home town in the face of a general disregard for women lawyers. Gradually she developed a reputation as a fine lawyer and received two appointments that advanced her career, one as a member of the Mississippi Board of Bar Examiners and another as the commissioner (i.e., magistrate) of a United States District Court where she had jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matters. This led to her lifelong moniker as “Judge Lucy.” Service as a bar examiner renewed her friendship with a law school classmate, Joseph Marion Howorth whom she married in 1928 and joined in a law practice in Jackson, Mississippi. They lived “happily ever after” until Joe’s death in 1980.
During the 1920s, Lucy renewed her work with the YWCA by becoming chairwoman of both the “Y” board in Mississippi and the “Y” Girl Reserves. During the decade she also wrote articles for the short-lived Mississippi Woman Voter and the national Woman’s Press in which she offered keen advice on how the new women voters could effect political change, especially if they gave attention to local elections to “learn the system.”
Representative Lucy Howorth
In 1923 she managed her mother’s campaign for election to the Mississippi House of Representatives. Victory placed Nellie Nugent Somerville as the first woman to serve in that legislative body. In 1931 Lucy Howorth was elected to the Mississippi House as one of three delegates from Hinds County. The national press noted that she and her mother were the first mother-daughter state legislators in the country although Nellie Somerville had not sought re-election in 1927.
Howorth became chairwoman of the state’s dying Committee on Public Lands and led to the passage of several laws that created the State Game and Fish Commission, granted the state authority over the emerging oil industry, created additional state parks, and facilitated the location of more Civilian Conservation Camps. Her record reveals a keen sensitivity to the stress of the state’s citizens affected by the Great Depression.
Howorth to Washington, D.C.
As a loyal Democrat and worker for the nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932, Lucy was in line for an appointment in the new administration. She moved to Washington in July 1934 where she became one of the first three women named to the Board of Appeals of the Veterans Administration. After her husband closed their practice in Jackson he joined her. Joe later received a law degree from George Washington University and then became an army officer in the law offices of the Pentagon.
Lucy became well acquainted with the women who created a new and inviting climate for women in Washington circles of influence. Among all women in Washington, she was closest to a long-time Mississippi friend, Ellen Sullivan Woodward, director of women’s work relief programs. Together they brought a great deal of attention to what Mississippians were doing in the Roosevelt administration.
In 1944 Judge Lucy became more visible among women when she gave the keynote address at the White House Conference on Women in Post-War Policy Planning. Advocating the appointment of more women to government positions, especially within the U. S. Department of State, became the main theme of her activism. Protection of the jobs of women appointees within the Democratic administration led Howorth and Woodward in efforts to protect women officeholders after the influence of government women began to wane with President Roosevelt’s death in 1945. When a new ruling in 1943 that only veterans could serve on the Board of Appeals of the Veterans Administration terminated the three women members, Howorth became a legislative attorney in the Veterans Administration. In 1949, she moved to the newly created War Claims Commission as assistant general counsel.
Leadership in AAUW
Much of Lucy Howorth’s influence among women came through her leadership in the National Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW). She was program coordinator during the 1937-1939 national BPW presidency of her Mississippi friend, Earlene White, and she represented the BPW at a meeting of the International Federation in Norway in 1939. Had she been able to have leave granted from her own job, Howorth could have accepted the national presidency of the BPW and also that of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that became her main focus after 1941.
In 1947, she became chairwoman of the important AAUW Committee on the Economic and Legal Status of Women that offered a new venue through which she could promote opportunities for women. Her committee stood for jury service for women, the recognition for women in the emerging sciences, the elimination of quotas that hampered admission of women to professional and graduate schools, an advanced status for women in the military, and an increased presence of women in public office. Probably her greatest impact on AAUW policy was her leadership at the national convention in 1949 to open membership to Black women. When her term as chairwoman of the committee ended in 1951, she became second vice president of the AAUW, a term that ended in 1955. She traveled extensively and boasted that she had spoken in every state but Nevada.
Early in 1953 Howorth became the general counsel for the War Claims Commission which meant that she was the first woman to be chairwoman of an Executive Department commission. Harry Truman was president by then. Retirement from the commission in December 1953 opened new opportunities for Howorth – from 1956 to 1968 she served on a legal task force of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Commission on Governmental Security, and frequently stood in for the commission’s vice-chairman, Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis, in his absence.
Howorth once told a young historian, “There’s nothing like living a long time; try to see that you do.” The indomitable Lucy Howorth lived for forty years in retirement in Cleveland, Mississippi, where she and Joe practiced law for a short time after their return. She remained energetic and active for women’s causes. In 1961-1962, she was in Washington again for meetings of a subcommittee of President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. That meant that she had served under appointments of four presidents.
In Cleveland she worked to integrate the county library and continued to advocate integration of AAUW branches. She was a standard figure at state and national AAUW conferences. In 1983, friends completed in record time the establishment of the AAUW Lucy Somerville Howorth Educational Fellowship. She frequently spoke to students at Mississippi colleges and once told University of Mississippi students, “The idea that women can’t do something just because we’re women … phooey.”
Howorth enjoyed talking to historians who wanted to know about her life. She spent many hours preparing her papers for their future use. Recognition of her life’s work came in 1983 when Radcliffe College gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award along with six other women, including Mississippi’s acclaimed author Eudora Welty. Upon accepting the award she spoke of the value of women’s organizations in advancing the status of women. “Organizations open doors for women. Advances for women do not happen by accident.”
Lucy Howorth’s death at age 102 on August 23, 1997, signaled the end of an era. She was the last survivor of the “Women of the New Deal” and left a legacy for countless women of her state and nation.
Martha H. Swain, Ph.D., is history professor emerita, Texas Woman’s University, and a former president of the Mississippi Historical Society.
Elliott, Jane Whiteside. “Lucy Somerville Howorth: Legislative Career, 1932-1935.” Master’s thesis, Delta State University, Cleveland, Mississippi, 1975.
Howorth Collection, Capps Archives, Delta State University.
Howorth File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Howorth Interviews by Dorothy Shawhan, Capps Archives, Delta State University.
Rupp, Leila and Verta Taylor. Survival in the Doldrums: The American Woman Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s. Oxford University Press, 1987.
Shawhan, Dorothy and Martha H. Swain. Lucy Somerville Howorth: New Deal Lawyer, Politician, and Feminist From the South. Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Somerville-Howorth Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ware, Susan. Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal. Harvard University Press, 1981.