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VOL. 41 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 13, 2017

Women taking new roles with Legislature

By Sam Stockard

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Letzler

They don’t get much press, but they are making history for women working with the General Assembly.

Murfreesboro resident Tammy Letzler is the first female to serve as chief clerk of either house of the General Assembly, following the trailblazing path of House Speaker Beth Harwell. And Memphis native Kim Cox is serving this session as assistant chief clerk, making her the first African-American female to take that role.

Harwell appointed Letzler and Cox to the posts Jan. 10 after Joe McCord left the chief clerk’s position in early January.

“It’s a great opportunity, and I’m just honored that the speaker appointed me. And I’m excited to serve the speaker and all of the House members,” Letzler says.

Entering her 23rd year in the House Clerk’s Office, Letzler is accustomed to the tasks of handling records, updating bills and scheduling legislation to be heard. And while she’s not one to seek the spotlight, preferring to leave the task of handling the microphone to Daniel Hicks, Letzler will be in charge, nevertheless.

“In a lot of other states, the chief clerk is not on the mic. It really freed me up to serve the speaker and serve the other members while session’s going on,” says Letzler.

Letzler grew up in Murfreesboro and graduated from Riverdale High School in 1989 before earning a bachelor’s degree in political science at MTSU. She interned with former Rep. Pete Phillips of Bedford County during her senior year of college and took a part-time job in the clerk’s office in 1994 before catching on full time that fall. She became assistant chief clerk in 2002 and is married with two children.

Cox

Cox earned her bachelor’s degree in public relations and a minor in women’s studies at MTSU, as well as a master’s in organizational leadership at Trevecca Nazarene University. She lives in Nashville with her husband.

Harwell, who became the first female speaker of the House six years ago, is confident in Letzler’s ability.

“I was honored to appoint Tammy as chief clerk of the House. She has an exemplary track record over her years in the clerk’s office, and her knowledge and integrity will serve this General Assembly well. I look forward to working with her,” Harwell says.

Making history

In a place dominated by men, Letzler’s new job is a long time coming and required some changing of attitudes.

In 1871, Margaret Vannoy Brown became the first female engrossing clerk in state history when she served in that position in the Senate until 1873. Mollie Grizzard became the House’s first female engrossing clerk in 1881.

But women hit a road block in April 1883, according to Legislative Librarian Eddie Weeks, when the Tennessee Supreme Court determined in State ex rel. v. Davidson: “By the English or common law, no woman, under the dignity of a queen, could take part in the government of the State, and they could hold no offices except parish offices. … Although a woman may be a citizen, she is not entitled, by virtue of her citizenship, to take any part in the government, either as a voter or as an officer, independent of legislation conferring such rights upon her.”

It would be 1907 before the Legislature passed a law allowing women to practice law and 1915 before a woman could serve as a notary public.

During the extraordinary session of 1920, though, Tennessee played the pivotal role in ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote.

A year later, Anna Lee Keys Worley became the first female member of the Senate after winning a special election to fill the seat of her husband who died in office. Seated Feb. 8, 1921, Worley introduced and ultimately passed a bill making women eligible to hold public office in Tennessee, according to Weeks.

Modern look

During more than 20 years in the House Clerk’s Office, Letzler has seen plenty of history take place.

Oddly enough, when she took a high school trip to the State Capitol in 1989, she watched the Senate pass an increase to the gas tax. Letzler points out fuel taxes are likely to be a major topic of debate this session, with Gov. Bill Haslam expected to propose some sort of increase or reform to raise more money for road and bridge construction.

But during her career, Letzler says, “one of the most historic (moments) was when Speaker Harwell won speaker.”

Harwell, a Nashville Republican who has served in the Legislature since 1988, is the first woman to serve as speaker in either house.

Her ascension to House speaker played a big part in Letzler obtaining her new role, and Letzler says Harwell has been encouraging along the way.

In fact, Letzler’s appointment as first female chief clerk in either house isn’t the only historically significant development for women this session. Harwell also named Kim Cox to serve as assistant chief clerk, making her the first African-American female to serve in that role.

The House passed resolutions recognizing the accomplishments, stating both women have served the House “with loyalty and integrity” in their previous roles and are “richly deserving of their recent promotions.” Furthermore, the resolution states, “strong women ensure the strength of our government, and the future of Tennessee is in good hands with Tammy Letzler and Kim Cox providing leadership and expertise.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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