When Dr. Laura Wilson, associate professor of political science, was enrolled in graduate school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, she frequently traveled on Lurleen Wallace Boulevard. Just as often, she found herself wondering why the wife of Governor George Wallace had such a prominent road named after her, even in her home city. After some research she discovered that Wallace had succeeded her husband as governor of Alabama in 1966.
“The motivations behind her decision to run, her election, and her administration were all clouded in scrutiny because of her marriage, and rightly so,” Wilson said. “But nonetheless, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about this, as someone who studies women in politics and state government and it became more and more evident to me that most people, even in Alabama, didn’t know either.”
Wilson continued to learn about Wallace throughout her career, eventually culminating in authoring “Lurleen Burns Wallace: The Power of the First Lady Governor.” The book introduces the political landscape of Alabama politics through the 1960s, recognizing the limited role women played in state politics and establishing the historical climate and tenuous politics through which Lurleen would later overcome in her landmark election.
She served as the first woman elected as governor in Alabama during a tumultuous time in the state and nation’s history as the civil rights issues flared. She was a quiet mother of four and a housewife. Ultimately, she beat nearly two-dozen male candidates to be elected to the highest post in state office. Despite being the most politically powerful woman in the state, she had no personal power over her own body; unknown to her at the time, she was dying from cancer. Her life and legacy are as complicated, as they are critical in understanding the role of white Southern women and their involvement in politics in the 1960s.
“I wanted to study and write about Lurleen Wallace because she represented a series of paradoxes unlike any other woman in politics,” Wilson said. “She was really after the generation of women who ran to fill the seats of their dead/term-limited fathers and husbands and yet that is exactly what she did in so many ways.” Wallace was elected to the highest office in the state, leading the state during the challenges of integration and federalism. She fought and lost the battle to maintain segregation and, just like the electoral victory in which she often receives no credit, she usually does not get her share of blame in this, either.
According to Wilson, Wallace fought for segregation and did nothing to help thousands of Alabamians who were suffering from the brutal effects of racism that still ravaged the South. She was open about having no political ambitions of her own, yet was ultimately elected to serve in the highest state office and won her primary without a run-off election. Wilson acknowledges the many critiques that can, and should, follow Wallace.
“Though her life and legacy were complicated,” she said. “She deserves the same level of analysis that her predecessors and successors earned.”