My maternal grandmother, Mantie Merritt McReynolds, was sheriff of Gaines County in far West Texas in the 1950s. I’ve loved telling the story to anyone who’d listen: Gutsy woman alert! My grandmother was a midcentury woman sheriff!
It’s a story that has given me a lot of pride. But one detail has also caused me a lot of internal conflict, so much so that I used to gloss over it like it never happened.
This tale begins with my grandfather, Robert McReynolds, as sheriff. He died in a car accident in 1953, a wreck that left my grandmother badly injured.
County commissioners asked her if she would finish my grandfather’s third term as sheriff and tax assessor-collector — making her the county’s first woman to hold that office. She accepted.
Her deputies would carry out the department’s physical policing functions, and the arrangement would provide her with paying work while she put the last two of her six children — my mother and her twin sister — through their senior year in high school.
A year later, the term was up. Mantie was asked if she would like to run for sheriff in her own right. She declined.
Her stated reason? “That’s man’s work.”
That’s the part of the story that always made me wince. I thought it diminished an otherwise inspirational anecdote. It didn’t fit into the narrow-minded strong-woman narrative that I had created for my grandmother.
So, I always left that part out. But it still ate at me.
Here was a chance for my grandmother to really make a mark in Texas law enforcement, I thought. Instead, she stepped aside, opening a door for her male deputy sheriff to run for the office (he won).
I never knew Mantie, so it wasn’t fair for me to second-guess her reasons, stated or otherwise, for not running in her own right. That didn’t stop me from talking to her about it in my head, trying to work out where she was coming from with this “man’s work” stuff. “If you didn’t want to continue being sheriff, OK. But did you have to diminish women’s aptitude and resourcefulness on your way out?”
I found it hard to fully appreciate her time as sheriff because of the gendered fashion in which she bowed out. Frankly, it blinded me. I was proud of her, but I didn’t get her.
My mother is now 80. Last month she and I were reminiscing about her parents. It had been a few years since we researched them online, so we pulled up Google.
This time, we struck informational gold. What we discovered was simply interesting nostalgia to my mother, but for me, it was revelatory.
The Gaines County Libraries had recently added issues of the Seminole Sentinel to the University of North Texas’ Portal to Texas History database. There were articles that chronicled my grandfather’s death and funeral. There was an article showing my grandmother being sworn in as sheriff from her hospital bed.
Articles from a few years later are what finally erased the conflict I felt about my grandmother’s reason for not running.
Remember the deputy who succeeded my grandmother as sheriff in 1954? He died of a heart attack in 1958. County commissioners named his widow, Mary Harris, as interim sheriff until a general election could take place just days later. Voters turned out in record numbers.
Mary was elected as sheriff, in her own right, as a write-in. She soundly beat a sheriff’s deputy and her late husband’s chief deputy.
In fact, that election handed 10 top public offices in Gaines County to women, enough to merit a newspaper article headlined, “It’s a Woman’s World in Gaines.”
I can’t say for sure that a higher number of women than usual ran for office in 1958 because of my grandmother’s example a few years earlier. But what my mother and I read in the Seminole Sentinel highlighted this truth for me: Equality is a long-distance relay race, and we all have our own leg to run.
It’s easy to think that gutsiness means having no fear. That’s far from true. Think of how intimidating some firsts must have been: Certain realms were built by men, for men, long ago. The idea that those realms were only for men was like gravity — a given.
Then a woman walks into that realm. Alone.
Eventually, she will be joined by other women. But someone has to go first. Or maybe it’s not just one woman. Some realms require several successions of trailblazers to widen the path so that the rest of us can more easily enter.
What my grandmother couldn’t see yet was that, in coming years, future voters in Gaines County would no longer view top posts like sheriff as men’s-only work.
What I didn’t fully realize before was how important groundwork-laying really is.
Any time you muster the courage to step into a spotlight previously reserved for men, you are serving as proof to other women — and men — that it can be done. You’re altering reality.
By normalizing the challenge, you’ve made it easier for other women to follow suit, and to take on challenges that are even more visible, or that bear higher stakes.
As for my grandmother’s statement that policing was “man’s work”? In 1954, she was expressing a generally accepted, current sentiment. It would take time for a woman serving as an elected sheriff to lose its novelty.
My grandmother didn’t have any education or life experience that would have prepared her for being sheriff and tax assessor-collector of an entire county. She didn’t seek to serve in that capacity, but she answered the call. She swallowed any nervousness she might have felt, collaborated with others, leveraged their strengths and experience, and got it figured out.
Not only do I have a greater appreciation for the groundwork my grandmother laid, I now notice small acts of gutsiness by fellow women all around me that I didn’t perceive before. I’m also appreciating small acts of gutsiness in myself, personal and professional achievements that I previously viewed as unimpressive.
When you’re attempting something frightening, impossible and bound for failure, what you’re really doing is laying ground on which future women will build empires.