“I hate to say that the [General] Assembly needs cleaning, but I see no way getting around it.”
– Viola Ross Napier
Viola Ross Napier was …
* the first woman to hold elected office in the state of Georgia.
* the first woman lawyer to argue before the Georgia Court of Appeals or the Georgia Supreme Court.
* the author of bills for the health, safety and education of underprivileged children.
* president of the Macon League of Women Voters when Georgia women first gained the right to vote
Viola Ross was born in Macon in 1881. Her maternal grandfather was one of the city’s original founders. She attended Gresham School on Forsyth Street and Old Wesleyan on College Street and the Elam Alexander Normal School. Choosing the typical career of young women of her era, Viola became a teacher.
In 1907 Viola married the dashing, ebullient young lawyer, Hendley Napier, Jr. The couple had four children. In spite of a very busy home life, Viola wanted to study law, but her husband did not think law was a suitable career for a woman.
In 1919 Viola’s conventional Southern way of life came to an abrupt end. The flu epidemic took her husband and father-in-law within two weeks of one another. She was left to fend for herself and four children. She knew that a schoolteacher’s wages would not be enough, so she began studying law at Judge “Lije” Maynard’s night school. Working at her dining room table with the baby in her lap, she managed to pass the bar in 1920.
None of Macon’s established law firms would hire Viola as an associate, so she opened her own practice. Most of her clients were women or poor and could pay very little in fees. Struggling financially, Viola became the first woman lawyer to argue before the Georgia State Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court.
The election of 1922 was the first in which the women of Georgia could vote. The Editor of the Macon News urged Viola to run for the General Assembly and take advantage of women’s new rights. She took the challenge, put up $48 for campaign expenses, and won a seat. Thus she became the first woman to be sworn into the Georgia State House of Representatives.
Viola’s legislative career was notable for many pioneering bills for children’s rights. She secured adoption of laws requiring better fire protection in orphanages and children’s hospitals and better education for the blind, the handicapped and the underprivileged. She also introduced a bill to prevent child labor.
Viola won a second term in the legislature but was defeated for a third. Mayor Luther Williams of Macon then offered her the job of City Clerk. It was a job far beneath her qualifications and abilities, but it offered a steady salary, better than she could do as a solitary woman lawyer. She was city clerk for 27 years. She kept minutes of city council, issued business licenses of all kinds, sold dog tags and oversaw the city pound. When the city went broke during the Depression, she wrote scrip checks for the city employees. She also was unofficial legal counsel for five mayors.
When Viola retired in 1954, at age 72, it was without fanfare. She died eight years later. In remembering her, her son, Hendley Napier III said, “She never seemed to resent what happened to her. She just said, ‘I did what I had to do.’”
Portraits of Viola Napier Ross now hang in the Macon City Hall and in the State Capitol in Atlanta.
Washington Memorial Library
Macon, GA 31201