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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 >>

Goals as mayor and challenges of gender

Cannon offers an overview of her efforts to bring Raleigh into compliance with North Carolina laws and the challenges she faced in doing so. She explains that she especially had difficulty with the committee of the Community Education Training Act (CETA), which she describes as a "good old boys" network. Her discussion of CETA leads her into an assessment of gender and politics. As the first female mayor of Raleigh, Cannon was interested in expanding women's roles in the city. Here, she specifically addresses her efforts to introduce women firefighters and police officers in Raleigh.

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

KATHRYN NASSTROM:
How long had Raleigh been out of compliance?
ISABELLA CANNON:
I really don't know how long we'd been out of compliance. It became a factor in my awareness when I was going down to City Hall so much, and then when it was turned down, I was really outraged. Another thing I started, and that we consistently keep complaining about, is that the City Code is not kept up-to-date. One of the things I said to the City Manager, who sets up the agenda for the Council meetings is that we need, especially our workshop meetings, that we needed to - it's not just the public meetings that the Council has, but they have workshop meetings - that we needed to get on with this revision of the City Code. The City Code actually changes every time the Council meets. Every time there's a new ordinance, there's a change, but there were a great many things that were out of actual usage, and it's so boring, it's so detailed, and the Council started, and it would be like a group working on bylaws. They'd pick at every word, and the time went by, and we got maybe one or two things, and there were big thick notebooks full of these things. So, for a while, the City Manager would put it on the last item, when everybody was tired, and I said "Uh uh. You're putting this on the first item when we are fresh, and we will work on it." Well, they worked too long on it. They got fed up with it, so finally [we] just did sort of a sweeping revision, let some committee work on it and let the City Manager work on it, but this was a serious attempt. There has not been a really serious attempt on the City Code, but the City Code constantly changes, and it affects the daily lives. It does everything from the taxes you pay, where you live, the zoning, how fast you drive, parking meters, anything is affected by it. That was an important thing; however, there are several other things. Is it all right if I take a little detail on this?
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Please do.
ISABELLA CANNON:
O.K. One of my big problems was CETA, and I'm not sure that I want to go into too much detail on that. You have immense records on CETA, but CETA was one of the most controversial things and caused me more problems than anything, and it, too, is forgotten now by citizens. You say, "CETA" and they have no idea what you're talking of. It was the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, and the man who was in charge of it simply never brought any of the stuff to the City Council. Yet I, as Mayor, was signing millions and millions and millions of dollars worth of contracts and felt responsibility. I did not know enough about it. It was very complex. The CETA regulations changed almost weekly between Washington and Atlanta, so I finally had a real confrontation with the City Manager and with the Head of CETA, that every contract had to be brought before the City Council and approved by them because they involved city responsibility, city money, and this was done with a real battle. I'm not sure that I need to go into that. It was pretty bad, and there were a lot of personal things that happened to me that were not very good. I had, should I talk a little bit about some of the personal problems I had, or is that not?
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
I think so. I'd encourage you to because I think of your note that I saw in one of the files to the effect that a lot of the clippings didn't really get at the nuances of the situation, and I think it would be good to document some of those.
ISABELLA CANNON:
I would probably need to look at some of those to refresh my memory on them, but I was not part of the "good old boy" network. The Council members as a whole knew each other, and we'd get to a Council meeting, and they'd go off for lunch or they'd go off to a meeting, and I would be alone. There was one other woman on the Council, a very wonderful woman, Miriam Block, who continued on the Council for many years and has been a very, very fine friend of mine. Frequently, Miriam - she was also a neighborhood-oriented type person - frequently Miriam would support me in the voting. Often the vote was six to two. The Mayor must vote, incidentally. Everybody must vote, unless they're excused for some reason. If somebody had property that was involved in a decision, they could ask to be excused, but if they were going to be away from the City, could not be present, they could ask to be excused. Otherwise, their vote was registered as a "yes" vote, and so, their vote was counted, unless they were excused. So, frequently, the votes would go, particularly on zoning cases and neighborhood things, would go, frequently, six to two, but often seven to one. Sometimes Miriam did not go along with my thinking. She was an immense support to me in many, many ways. Some of the small things that were daily irritations, I was not part of the Council's background structure. I suffered from lack of knowledge. I had to do an immense amount of studying. I did studying here, Sunday mornings. I'd sometimes have four to six hundred pages of stuff that I was studying. It would have been easier for me as Mayor if I had been on the Council because I had so much to learn, but the Council, the administrative structure of the city was pretty upset at having a woman who was not part of that "good old boy" network. One of the most visible evidences of that would be that news releases would be given to the newspapers, and I would not get them. Some of the reporters were very, very fond of me, very cooperative. They tell me now it used to be fun to go down to City Council when I was Mayor and that it wasn't as much fun after that because I had good rapport with many of the reporters. That doesn't mean they were easier on me, but we just could talk to each other. A reporter would come into my office. "Mayor Cannon, I'd like your comment on this recent release." "What release? I haven't seen it?" "Well, I've just gotten it from one office or another," normally the City Manager's office. So I'd call or I'd ask, and I'd go along sometimes so angry I'd go barrelling down the hall, and say, "Why have I not seen this release?" "Oh, you didn't get it? Oh, there's a mistake. It's on its way to you." Well, it happened too often for that to be. One funny, silly little thing about being Mayor: it was never intended by the city that a small female should be Mayor. The Mayor's chair was a huge chair for a six foot male or six feet four male, and the City Council table behind which we sat was fairly high, so the Mayor's chair could be rolled up so that I could be seen. At that point, if I were sitting there for a meeting that maybe went on four to six hours, I was sitting with my feet dangling, which was totally uncomfortable. If they rolled me down, you couldn't see me, and I had to be seen to preside, and I pretty much was a stickler for Robers Rules of Order. In fact, I got someone to scrutinize what I was doing, the head of the national organization on that. I had him come in and make sure I was handling the technicalities of the meeting correctly. I had to be seen, so if you rolled me down, I couldn't be seen. If you rolled me up, my feet were dangling. So finally, we had gotten a stool. I was still sitting perched on the edge of the chair so that finally I had to get a big old cushion in the back of me, just a silly little thing.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
But from how you tell it, very symbolic.
ISABELLA CANNON:
Yes, it was totally that you never expected a small, five foot female, or male for that matter, to be the Mayor. Among the things I did, and you're particularly interested in some of the things that relate to women, were the first female fire fighters. I had a real battle with the administration on that. We were taking in people as beginning fire fighters, and there was no intermediate step for them between that and becoming a driver. When a position as a driver, and very few of those, when a position as a driver became vacant, you'd have maybe forty, fifty, sixty people and only one could be chosen. There was urgent, and we'd lose a lot of those that we had spent money training, so there was real need for an intermediate step - Fire Fighter, One, and so, I started a battle for that. There had to be some way to utilize these people that they could go as an intermediate step and still be retaining, still get the benefit of the training we had spent money on. Well, the administration insisted that these people have emergency medical training. I said, "Do the captains have emergency medical training? Do the drivers have emergency medical training?" "No, just that group." I said, "You cannot put it just for that one group. If they're going to have it, every group must have it." So we now have all the fire fighters in emergency medical training. We now have the first responder thing. If I call in with a heart attack, whoever is closest, the fire fighters or the ambulance, comes. So, you can have a heart attack, and the fire engine is coming, if they were highly trained. This was an important step forward, and it retained many people that we would have lost who kept on working. Now, at this point, I saw the need to get women involved in fire fighting, and I ran into tremendous opposition on that. The fire fighters who go on twenty-four hours, spend twenty-four hours in the fire station, which means there was a dormitory room and all were sleeping in there. Here became a problem with women sleeping in there. Some of the greatest opposition I had was from the wives of fire fighters. "I don't want my husband sleeping in there with a bunch of women!" So, I said, "O.K. What we'll do, we'll put little cubicles along there with a curtain on them, and the women can sleep in there." Then, the fire fighters said, "Well, if women can have it, why can't we?" But their diction primarily was "Women are too slight in stature. They cannot handle a limp body, getting somebody out of a six story window." I said, "Have you never heard of judo and karate? Of course we can do it." So we got women fire fighters. They are, I think, primarily used in office positions, but made the point that we can use women in that. We were beginning to use women in the police force, and I was extremely supportive of that, and some of the women have served purposes that men could never serve, being decoys when you have people that are prostitutes and pimps and so on like that. And some of them have some dreadful experience, some hairy experiences, but women, we have women detectives, we have women officers in the police force. But I gave them a lot of support on that. One other thing.