Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gladys Avery Tillett, March 20, 1974. Interview G-0061. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

First woman elected to state executive committee and the state Democratic Party chair

Tillett describes how she became involved in state politics and in the national Democratic Party. In 1932, Tillett served as a delegate to the Democratic convention, where she saw Franklin Delano Roosevelt accept the Democratic nomination for president. Around the same time, Tillett became one of the first women appointed to serve on the state executive committee and later went on to serve as the state chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party. When she became involved in partisan politics, Tillett resigned her position of leadership within the League of Women Voters, although it was her work with the League that had garnered the recognition and experience that enabled her to become more involved in politics.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gladys Avery Tillett, March 20, 1974. Interview G-0061. 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

JACQUELYN HALL:
Were there any other women on the state executive committee?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
There had been a woman who preceded me but I think I was the only one from Mecklenburg County when appointed… I'm not sure about predecessers… As time went by the number of women on the state committee increased.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But you were the first active, independent woman.
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
I think I was one of the first active independent women from Mecklenburg County and I think it helped the cause of women to have me appointed. I think there were token appointments of women when women's suffrage first came… In 1932 my husband and I went to Raleigh for the state convention. I was going to learn about political state conventions and my husband … we were sitting in the auditorium and this same Mr. Jones, our county chairman, that made me precinct member got up when they were having nominations. And all unknown to me the state party had decided to have four women serve as delegates to the '32 convention when Roosevelt was nominated. Presently nominations for delegates to the National Convention got under way … I thought Mr. Hamilton Jones came to the platform during nominations … I asked my husband, "Who is he nominating?" and about that time Mr. Jones said "She was born in Burke County and reared in Burke County and now is a citizen of Charlotte. Mrs. Gladys Tillett." Well, it was a complete surprise to me… and my husband, too, because we didn't know anything about it. And they nominated Mrs. Palmer German and Miss Elliott, Professor Harriett Elliott, and a woman from western North Carolina. She was active. And four women were nominated for delegates to the National Convention in Chicago. It was a great experience. We felt all women elected should go, and we went, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated as candidate for President of the United States on the Democratic ticket. Both men and women were moved, sometimes to tears, as he came forward on crutches to address the convention.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were you a strong Roosevelt supporter all through the period?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Oh yes, I served as Reporter Chairman for N.C., an organization plan to acquaint state and local party leaders with the Roosevelt program, the New Deal. Molly Dewson, head of the National Democratic Division, set up the Reporter Plan to inform county and precinct leaders about the New Deal. I headed each unit in party organization as vice-chairman, and through the process I was aware that a woman's holding office would demonstrate a woman could serve as head of each unit in party organization. It would be less difficult to get women into positions of political leadership. So I had gained a broad experience. Not every state had given women the recognition that came to North Carolina women in 1932 by including them in the various units of party organization. But I did not think that it was hard to do and it was a great advantage to come up from the ranks. That is to take each step and see what is being done. I resigned as President of the League when I got into state politics but but kept my interest and stayed in the League program. And then I, of course, was active in that campaign after Roosevelt was nominated. Later on I became N.C. state vice-chairman of the Democratic Party. I resigned as vice chairman of the Democratic Committee in 1926 to run the National Speakers Bureau. It was an interesting experience. I learned about prejudice in a campaign and worked hard over the religious issue. This gave me a background of experience in dealing with prejudice, then going to the national convention in 1932 was very stimulating and built a wider experience. Because, of course, it was very exciting and interesting, and then of course Prof. Elliot being there, you see, my teacher, and others, older women. It was an interesting and very exciting experience. The high spot was when Roosevelt was nominated and came to the Convention to accept the nomination. It was a first for the nominee to accept in person. And of course he captivated the country and captivated the delegates. And then, later on… being a delegate … I got acquainted with some of the national leaders. And …
JACQUELYN HALL:
National women?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Yes, national women leaders. Molly Dewson was a woman who was commander of the forces of women for Roosevelt, national vice chairman. She was a graduate of Wellesley College and a leader in public movements and she became vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. So, as state vice chairman I got acquainted with her. And Dewson asked me to serve as N.C. Chairman of the Reporter Plan. She was trying to have a program called the Reporter Plan. And it aimed to get women interested and informed on the New Deal. So that sort of fit into my League of Women Voters background of studying issues—the focus was on the Democratic Party program. So I went … after I was elected, I went in many counties in North Carolina, and I remember that my local county chairman, a man, went all the way to Raleigh to nominate me when I ran as candidate for N.C. State Chairman of the Democratic Party, which indicates the sort of interest and respect that he had for the women's movement, and the leadership of women in the party setup. And he said that you can take into account the experience of your women candidates for vice-chairman, but he said "But I have a woman that's carried her precinct in Mecklenburg Co. for Al Smith in 1928. And I thought I ought to offer her for state vice chairman." That was a recommendation electing a woman to organize N.C. I'd done it in a precinct and shown I could do it, and "elections are won in the precinct" became my motto, and later the motto of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee. I did get elected, and then I became acquainted, you see, with the national people. And I suggested having regional conferences for the women. And … of course I'd taken the idea to the national committee. And they did. They had a regional conference in Virginia and later in Alabama and in Mississippi. And I, of course, was interested in reaching women in other states and helping in any thing possible. I remember one thing we were worried about in Virginia was how we could endorse social security and not offend Senator Byrd! There was an uncertainty about the … from the standpoint of his state women leaders very carefully approached…