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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Isabella Cannon, June 27, 1989. Interview C-0062. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Affirmative action for women: accomplishments and limits

Cannon discusses the impact of affirmative action for women, which she worked to implement as mayor of Raleigh during the late 1970s. Cannon argues that although women had made advances in local government and in other leadership arenas, such as education and business, there was still much headway to be made. She suggests that perhaps the community was still not yet ready to accept women's changing status and points to her own failed bid for re-election in 1979 as evidence.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Isabella Cannon, June 27, 1989. Interview C-0062. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Well, actually, I found this interesting, the affirmative action in city government programs, and am I right in concluding from what you've said that if you hadn't been there pushing for these things, then the status quo would have remained the same?
There would have been some [change]. I added some impetus. Immediately after I went in, I went into office in December, and in January, affirmative action came back at us. We were out of compliance. If we didn't get in compliance, it was going to cost us some fourteen million dollars. Immediately, we set up mechanisms, albeit with a lot of opposition to it, but here was this money. We had to get in compliance. We were just dreadfully out of compliance with the affirmative action, and the revenue sharing depended on the affirmative action, so that was one of the most difficult things and one of the things I had not really had the background. I had to do an awful lot of work on that and had to rely on the very competent people. I have said some critical things of the City Manager, but the City Manager was a professional and was able to pull some of that together in a tremendously good way. We were given quite a long time, and we did get in compliance. We still do not have in our city government good affirmative action. We have only one department that has a woman head [of the department]. We have now one Assistant City Manager, but we have very few, we don't have enough women as heads of departments. This happens to be true, of course, through places like N.C. State University, and you get what I call the "A Train," the "Assistant," the "Acting," the "Associate." So we are still not giving full credit to the abilities of women. There are many women now in city government, some of them in good positions, some of them like inspectors and so on, but still the bulk of the work and the administrative positions are held by men. So I gave some impetus to it. I cannot take the full credit for it. I happened to think up the things, particularly the things about the fire fighters. I had to give added help to the police officers.
Does it take someone in the position, say, of the Mayor or the City Manager to very actively be going after affirmative action, otherwise it gets stuck in this middle ground?
Yes. It has to be more the Mayor than the City Manager. The City Council employs three people: the Clerk, who is a woman and a fantastic person, the City Attorney, and the City Manager. Those are the only three people that the City Council employs or can hire or fire. The City Council sets policy. The City Manager, of course, implements the policy. These creative things, primarily, have to come from the Mayor or from the Council members. It can come as a consensus from the Council, but Mayor, being in the visible position, it usually has to come there. But implementation and the details, of course, are handled by the professionals. We have some fine professionals in the City Manager's office. We have now a City Manager and three Assistants, one of those being a woman, one being black. You've got that sort of representation.
Is it possible to answer this question, very general, of what would it take to get women, and then you were mentioning blacks too, past the "A Train" into these very top level positions? Is that too general a question or do you have a sense of what it would take to accomplish this?
No, I think it's a question that most of us wrestle with in many areas. For instance, N. C. State, the federal government came down on N. C. State. They looked at the salary levels and saw that the levels are incredibly poor. The differentiation between women and men, not at only N.C. State, at Chapel Hill. It's even worse at Chapel Hill. The number of women who are heads of departments, we can go farther to our University system. There is not a woman head. There has been a woman at the one that you'd associate women more with, the one at Winston Salem, but there has been only one woman head at Charlotte, and she didn't last very long there as head. Our community college system, I don't know the numbers on that, if there are any women. For a while, there were no women. Now, I have talked to Bob Scott who is the former Governor, and he pointed out to me that this has to come from the local community. I know that Neil McLeod was head of the community college down at Martin College, but she was too liberal for the area, so the local community has a great deal to do on that. To go back to your question, perhaps more aggressiveness on the part of women, though if they're too aggressive then they're "pushy women" quote unquote. Women are coming along in the pipeline, coming up the pipeline towards the head positions. They're not getting all the support they should get on it. It's too slow. I don't know of any women bank presidents in North Carolina. There may be. There's a heck of a lot of assistant vice presidents at () places. Perhaps that's the pipeline. Perhaps lack of trust, perhaps women haven't been in the business world long enough to establish the trust that needs to be established to give women confidence to be president of a bank, president of Wachovia, First Union, or NCNB. I don't see that happening any time soon. I get the Board of Directors annual reports. There are very few women. Occasionally, Juanita Kreps gets in, but it's the exception. I don't know. I look at the fact that I am the only woman Mayor of Raleigh in almost 200 years of history. Unless a woman declares this year, I will go onto the 200 as being the only woman who has ever offered herself. You see, it's not just that the citizenry can elect a woman - a woman has to offer herself. It never occurred to me as anything historic when I did it. I was just a furious, angry citizen, and I wanted to see something done. I was not running as a female or as an older citizen. I was just running as somebody mad about what was happening, and I felt like I could do something about it. So the identification as a woman or an older citizen was not there in my thinking at that time. In fact, nobody knew how old I was, not because I was ashamed of it, but because I never thought of it, and when it came out that I was seventy-three, it was a total shock to people. "I didn't know you were that old!" The newspaper, every time they put my name down, they put my age beside it. Women have got to take more leadership roles. They do run. Wilma Woodard has run and has been defeated. She's won, and she's been defeated. We have women running for the Legislature, some of them winning and some of them losing. We have now, at the moment, four women on the City Council, which is a good indication of the interest in women in the position, and we've got a lot of women who are going to be running this fall for, certainly, I know a number that are going to be running for the at-large position, two at-large positions. Women need, themselves, to have more confidence in themselves, be longer in the pipeline, be longer in the business community, be more active in the political community. Places like N.C. State, I don't know why there aren't more women, and at Chapel Hill, more women heads of departments. We have just had a woman who was a Nobel Prize winner. I saw President Friday's interview of the male Nobel prize winner, and no mention of the co-winner who was the woman. Why, why did President Friday not do that? I need to contact him and say, "Why? Why did you ignore the woman who was the co-winner?" So, again, our society is still dragging our feet. Their perception of women as leaders and as trustworthy has not yet come. And I got defeated when I ran again. The citizens who had supported me did not realize that I needed continuing support. Here was the all-American young man - athletic, good looking, family background. He defeated me very narrowly, by about 1000 votes, and only, I think, by the fact that he was able to persuade the Council to change the election from November to October.