Nellie Weil made history in 1974 when she became the first woman elected to the Montgomery County Board of Education. Although little fuss, or mention, would be made of the milestone, at least not by the Montgomery Advertiser.
She ran with a platform focused on being a “mother’s representative,” according to the one paragraph mention of her campaign in a May 1974 article.
Alan Weil said when his late wife told him she was running, he said he told her, “You’re a smart lady, but I think you’ve lost your mind’.”
Ninety years after the board was established in 1928, history has been made again: Montgomery County will have, for the first time, an all-female Board of Education after four new members were elected Tuesday along with incumbent Lesa Keith. Clare Weil, Brenda DeRamus-Coleman, Jannah Morgan Bailey and Claudia Mitchell will join Keith and along with sitting members Mary Briers and Arica Watkins-Smith
The year Nellie Weil was elected, community members were in despair about the state of the school system, and wondered in editorials if she and the other newly elected could make a difference — a question posed by many during this election cycle as well.
With five seats up for grabs, and two already occupied by women, Montgomery voters sent a woman to the board in every district. The focus of this election was, for many, about change — about fixing a system that has been scarred in many ways.
Each of the women coming to the table have led lives full of accomplishments in their own right, and many have made history on their own, too.
In 2004, District 4’s Briers was one of two black women to join the board — the first time any black woman had done so.
DeRamus-Coleman, who will soon represent District 3, was the first female assistant principal at Opelika High School.
Having all women on the board, however, is not the most important factor in this election, DeRamus-Coleman said.
“It is more important to me that elected officials will do what is right for our children, our schools, and our city,” she said.
It does signify that the public trusts women to lead, she said. The deeper significance, though, is that “we will represent for young women that females are viable candidates and can be effective leaders … Hopefully, with the changing landscape of what a leader looks like, we can squash the stereotypes and shape a more positive vision of who a leader is by what a leader does rather than her race, ethnicity and gender.”
While little traction was made for women running for state offices in Alabama, female leadership within MPS runs heavy, with a ratio of 34 female principals to 18 male principals, along with Ann Roy Moore as superintendent.
Moore echoed DeRamus-Coleman, saying that women are great leaders, as are men. What the election shows, she said, is that “it’s something females are capable of doing.”
“Girls rock!” she added.
For District 5’s Bailey, an all-female board is noteworthy for multiple reasons.
“Though women have certainly come a long way, things are still not equal on every level,” Bailey said, who admitted to once avoiding applying for a position that had historically only been held by men. She currently is the executive director of Child Protect, a nonprofit that works with the police to investigate child abuse cases, that has a more than $1 million reserve.
“I was raised by a very strong, independent woman who taught me that I could be anything regardless and I have always felt that way,” Bailey said. “The world however doesn’t always see things the same way your mother does. I saw my mother work three times as hard as your male counterparts to prove herself. I am proud of my mother as she retired from being the chief clerk of the House of Representatives and was very respected and admired for her achievement.”
In District 2, Clare Weil, who has no relation to Nellie Weil but was a good friend of hers, said she wasn’t sure what the significance of an all-female board is, but, “I think the composition of this particular group is going to be really dynamic. There is a depth of knowledge in varying fields, which makes it a potential powerhouse of a board. Each member has knowledge and experience to add.”
Alan Weil eventually warmed up to the idea of his wife running for the board, although he didn’t have much of a choice.
“Nellie had a mind of her own and when she made up her mind to do something, there was no way to change her mind — that was it, she was going to do it,” he laughed.
Aside from serving on the MPS board for 18 years, she also served as the president of the Alabama Association of School Boards and the first Alabamian president of the National School Boards Association. According to her obituary, she was the first woman chosen to head the annual fundraising campaign for the Montgomery Area United Way.
“She was quite an outstanding lady — she had it all together,” Alan Weil said.
“She was very very smart and she knew how to do things and went about doing things in the right way.”
For this board, the fact that they are all women doesn’t matter to him.
“I just hope that the people on the board now really care about the school system and the kids in Montgomery. … Having four new members on the board is going to make a difference. I think they are going to work for the city and the county and I think you’ll see some improvements.”
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