By STEVEN NALLEY
When Lydia Quarles graduated from Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., she was one of three women in a graduating class of 273.
When Quarles began practicing law in Columbus, she said there was only one other female lawyer in the area: Lenore L. Prather, Mississippi’s first female chancellor, the first woman on the Mississippi Supreme Court and the first chief justice on that court. Quarles said she saw Prather as a role model, but only from afar.
“I didn’t feel that I could just call up Judge Prather and tell her my troubles as a young woman in this man’s bar,” Quarles said. “By the time my career had progressed and I felt I had time and wisdom to share with others, I worked very hard to make myself accessible to young women who needed, as I did, just someone to talk to. This I have done. I don’t know if I have helped a single living young woman, but I have certainly been bountifully rewarded with some beautiful friendships with bright young women who want to make a difference in the world.”
On Monday, Mississippi State University announced the American Society for Public Administration has rewarded Quarles for her efforts with the 2012 Joan Fill Bishop Award.
Quarles is a senior policy analyst at MSU’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government and an assistant professor in MSU’s department of political science and public administration. She will receive the award at ASPA’s national conference in Las Vegas March 5.
Bethany Stich, a fellow assistant professor in Quarles’ department, nominated Quarles for the award. She said Quarles has made it her life’s mission to help young women build skills in administrative law.
“Lydia has been and continues to be an inspiration to women both at Mississippi State and throughout the state,” Stich said. “She has established a variety of support networks for women. I thought she deserved recognition for the countless volunteer hours she spends helping women throughout the state.”
Quarles said she has spent most of her administrative career with the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission, where she was a judge for eight years and a commissioner for six years. In addition to making MWCC more accessible for Spanish speakers, she said she developed two programs for Kids’ Chance of Mississippi: a scholarship fund and a mediation project.
“I have always worked to find innovative answers to questions raised in the administrative community,” Quarles said. “If the answers were easy, we wouldn’t still be trying to find answers, and I have concentrated on thinking out of the box for solutions and never, ever allowing others to get by with the old excuse: ‘We’ve always done it this way!’”
Quarles also started the Stennis Institute’s “Perspectives on Women and Politics” publication. She said she began the publication with a tribute to the first female elected to a Mississippi state office, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy, a week after her death. One tribute led to others, she said, discussing such leaders as Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Mississippi’s first female district court judge, Sharion Aycock.
Stich said Quarles is also a strong advocate for women’s rights beyond administrative law.
“She’s passionate, and she’s unapologetically supportive of women ... strong, educated women ... and the value of women in the workforce,” Stich said. “At a time when we’re seeing congressional leaders talking about birth control and Initiative 26 — when in some ways women’s rights are under fire — she is fighting in all ways to make sure women’s rights are protected.”
Quarles said she is also concerned about workplace equity and parity. American women earn approximately 72 cents for every dollar equally qualified men earn, she said, and sexual harassment is still a major issue most women in the workplace face.
“Sexual innuendo is so entrenched in our culture that often men do not realize they are perpetrating sexual harassment and there are also times that women are so ‘used to’ this type of treatment that they do not even recognize it for what it is,” she said. “Women are considered the default child-care givers, and if two professionals are married, it is very likely that the woman is called to the school when there is a sick or disobedient child to manage. Women have made advances in every field of endeavor in the last 25 years, but... there is no parity.”