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  • "Who Is Bettye Frink?":The Billboards and the Secretary of State Who Changed Alabama Politics, 1958-1962
  • Laura Merrifield Wilson (bio)

The billboards popped up overnight across the community of Leeds, a growing suburb just east of Birmingham, Alabama, in the winter of 1958. Curious onlookers seemed intrigued and a little puzzled by the question that dominated the entire advertisement: "Who is Bettye Frink?"1 Alabamians driving by the signs undoubtedly wondered the same thing. The "Bettye Frink" mentioned in the billboards was a young woman who, at least at the time, was relatively unknown in the community. Born Bettye Haynes in Crossville, Alabama, when the signs began touting her name around town in 1958, she was a 24-year-old mother of two who kept busy with secretarial work in addition to her homemaking duties.2 She was, according to later newspaper accounts, a "pretty blonde housewife" and the embodiment of white southern womanhood.3

The billboards were mysterious enough to pique the interest of passers-by, and in the following weeks, another series of signs replaced their predecessors, questioning, "What is her line—art, science, or politics?"4 At the time, the correct response would have been "none of the above," but that would change within the year. Frink herself was surprised by the signs, which she denied putting up. "I saw this [End Page 234] gigantic billboard with this question about Bettye Frink," she remembered years later. Pausing over the inquiry of whether she was in art, science, or politics, she smiled: "Well, I may not have known the answer before then, but from that moment on, I have."5

The young housewife had never run for election or held a public office, though she worked for the Democratic Party, which still dominated the "Solid South."6 Perhaps, the signs seemed to insinuate, she should try her hand at politics. In fact, the mysterious billboards were not Bettye's idea, as some suggested, but were funded by a well-known businessman who operated WLPH, an all-gospel radio station, and who had himself run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in a previous election.7 His name was William "Bill" Frink, Sr., and in addition to his professional accolades, he was Bettye's husband.8

Frink was, perhaps, an unlikely choice for statewide office. She was a woman without a four-year college degree, and had never held an elected position at any level. Frink grew up in humble but respectable circumstances as a young girl in Crossville, a small town in DeKalb County, Alabama. After earning her high school diploma, she attended Massey Business College, a secretarial school that taught typing, stenography, and other administrative tasks. Nothing in her early years signified a natural talent for politics, but she proved to be enterprising and ambitious. At the age of twenty-two, she secured a job as a secretary for the Treasury Department, a position which she maintained while marrying a businessman and raising their children.9 Despite this unassuming background and her own claims of naiveté, Bettye Frink easily beat out six other candidates and won one of the most important political positions in Alabama's government, [End Page 235] secretary of state. In doing so, she joined a tradition of female officeholders at the state level.

Alabama, along with its neighboring states across the South, was known for its conservatism and emphasis on tradition, including gendered expectations for political participation. Politics was a "man's game," while the women were expected to tend to domestic duties that supported, but did not supplant, their husband's work. The state had a long record of historically low female participation. Women were essentially excluded from the legislature, with the notable exception of one or two women occupying a single seat out of the 140 available through the 1970s. Women ran for legislative seats but were rarely successful.10 Sibyl Murphree Pool of Linden became the first woman elected to the state legislature in 1938, but when she resigned her seat to become secretary of state in 1944, nearly thirty years passed before another woman won a seat in the house. That woman, Retha Deal Wynot, would later serve as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9961
Print ISSN
0002-4341
Pages
pp. 234-257
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-20
Open Access
No
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