[August 10, 1961] A Fair Deal for the Fairer Sex (Women, politics, and The Andy Griffith Show)

by Gideon Marcus

A woman on the City Council?  Say it ain’t so!

It’s not news that there just aren’t a lot of women in politics these days.  Universal suffrage is now 40 years old, but women comprise just 18 out of 437 members of the House of Representatives and 2 of 100 Senators – about 4% and 2%, respectively.  For most of us, that’s not an alarming statistic.  That’s just the way it’s always been.  But for some of us (including this columnist), equal representation can’t come soon enough.  After all, when women make up half the population but only 4% of the government, that’s a crisis of almost Revolutionary proportions.

I’m not the only one taking a stand, but sometimes support for the cause comes from the unlikeliest of places.

I watch a lot of television, maybe too much.  There’s plenty of dross in this “vast wasteland” behind the screen of the idiot box, but there’s also gold.  To wit: The Twilight Zone, Route 66, and, surprisingly, The Andy Griffith Show.

I didn’t expect much when I started watching this strange little slice-of-life program set somewhere in the southern Appalachians.  It’s a broad comedy on the face of it, with Sheriff Andy Griffith’s drawl and wide smile and Deputy Barney Fife’s pretentious bumbling, but after a few episodes, it became clear that the comedic elements are a sugar coating for deep thoughtfulness.

The other night, I happened to catch a summer rerun from early in the series, back when Griffth’s stuttering yokelish portrayal was at its least subtle.  It opens on a picnic where Elinor Walker, the town’s new pharmacist (and Andy’s recently acquired sweetheart) articulates her disappointment that there are no women running for city council.  Andy slights her concern, noting that the position is called “Councilman,” and it’d be silly if a woman held that title.

Ellie, no timid soul, is emboldened rather than discouraged by Griffith’s disparagement.  In short order, she acquires the 100 petition signatures needed to put her on the ballot, the first provided by none other than Griffith’s own Deputy Fife (speaking of unlikely support)!  The affronted men of Mayberry, North Carolina attempt to stop Ellie’s candidacy through supra-political means, refusing the women access to charge accounts at local businesses.  This tactic backfires when the women stop cooking, washing, ironing, and mending (and presumably work a little Lysistrata action in there, too).

The episode’s climax begins with a rally downtown.  The women (and a few supporting men) wave signs and shout “We want Ellie!”  Most of the men jeer.  Upset at the strife her running has caused, Ellie visits the Griffith home and tells him, “You won,” and that she will withdraw her candidacy because, “It’s just not worth it…when I decided to run I had no intention of starting a Civil War in Mayberry.”

Young Opie Griffith, steeped in his father’s latest comments, cheers, “We won, we beat them females!  We kept them in their place.  Us menfolks don’t want women running our town, do we, Pa?”

It’s a powerful moment that sharply drives home the effect of Andy’s ill-considered words.  Ashamed at the example he’s set, instead of accepting Ellie’s surrender, he heads to the rally in support.  Addressing the assembly, he notes significantly: “We men are against a woman running for council.”  The men cheer and applaud, but the sheriff continues, “The woman in this case being Ellie Walker.  Now we’re against her because she’s a woman.  But, now, when you try to think of any other reason, you kind of draw a blank.”

This proves the shot that deflates the balloon, the men acknowledging the point.  Ellie wins the election – how could she not with all the women and many of the men backing her? 

Now, if you’re from one of the more progressive parts of the nation that happens to have women in government, you might think the whole problem silly and overblown, the events of the episode a caricature.  But think about the 96% of the country without female representation.  Remember that, in Alabama, women aren’t even allowed to serve on a jury!  It’s not the situation in The Andy Griffith Show that’s implausible — it’s the happy ending.

So let’s applaud Andy Griffith for showcasing the bias against women in government, and then let’s keep working to overcome it, so that one day, some little girl who saw Ellie Walker win a seat on the Mayberry City Council might be inspired to run for Representative or Senator or, dare I say, even President of the United States. 

It’s an outcome worth the long fight, even if it takes half a century.

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