October 1977: Female principal, board members still a novelty


The Women's World of 1977 highlighted several local women who were blazing new trails.

The Daily Mountain Eagle reported that a total of 20 women had been appointed to boards serving Jasper and Walker County.

Fara Lawson of the Jasper Board of Education and Sandra Smallwood of the Walker County Civil Service Board were described as being the most visible and most prominent.

The Carbon Hill Board of Education had two women members — Pat Barnes and Barbara Guin. The last woman to serve on the Walker County Board of Education was reported to be Doris Roberts in the early 1970s.

The last woman to hold countywide elected office was Flora Stewart, who served as Probate Judge from 1972 to 1976.

At that time, the Walker County Commission and Jasper City Council had never had a female member, and none of the local municipalities had a woman serving.

The subject of women serving on councils came up in one of my conversations with a local councilwoman the other day, and I was able to report that four of Cordova's seven council members are female. At the next meeting, on Oct. 22, those members — Teressa Thomas, Melody Dawkins, Nakia Belser and Pam Vance — were the only ones who showed up to conduct business.

Back in 1977, Betty Hockensmith was feeling a little uncomfortable with the attention she was receiving for being a female principal.

"Why are they making such a big deal? It's nothing new," she said.

Hockensmith, Empire Jr. High School's principal, was the only female principal in Walker County at the time and was said to be the only one to serve in such a role for the past 17 years.

The previous year, she had been a special education teacher at Sumiton Elementary. 

The year before that, she had been one of three women to apply for a principal's position. The other two were Mamie Noles of Nauvoo and Madeline Horsely of Curry, two teachers with whom she had commuted to the University of Alabama to get her school administration certification.

Hockensmith, a native of Texas, had a master's degree and a doctorate in education in addition to at least a dozen years of experience in the classroom. She bristled at the suggestion that her promotion might have been related to quotas. 

"I don't think I was considered just because I was a woman. It was my qualifications and how I fit into the situation," she said.

According to the Eagle article, Walker County had 130 schools and 29 female principals in 1932. Most — 21 — had one-room schools, and none headed a school larger than three rooms.

During World War II, women answered the call to serve at home. Dora G. Boyd served as principal of Dora Elementary, which had 12 classrooms, and Catheree Prewitt was in charge of a school that served Dora's African American children.

Women left the scene in the 1960s, though a handful began applying for administrative jobs in 1974.

"More will be hired. There's no way around that. They're qualified now," said County Schools Superintendent Robert E. "Joe" Cunningham. He added, "There probably has been some unconscious discrimination toward them."

Noles, a teacher in Nauvoo, and Horseley, a Curry Elementary teacher, were expected to be the next women to be promoted to principal positions.

Horsely was the most outspoken on the issue.

"Has the board taken too long to appoint women? That's an understatement," she told the Eagle.

Horsely had gone to school headed by a female principal during World War II.

"Women have the management skills. It's time for a change. And the best thing that's happened for us is Betty Hockensmith," Horsely said.  

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.