Boston — In a meandering drawl that brings to mind the folksiness of former Sen. Sam Ervin, Lucy Somerville Howorth recalls some of her mentors in politics: ''They weren't what you read about. They weren't battle-axes, they weren't war horses, they weren't stern, unattractive women. They were good looking, they were stylish, they were full of wit and full of fun, and most of them had a bit of what we call the ham.''
As the daughter of the president of the Mississippi Suffrage Association, little Lucy was stuffing envelopes at a time when most children were playing hopscotch.
''When I was six months old, my mother took me to a district meeting,'' she says of her earliest moments on the hustings. ''And from that day until the day I went into college, every few months we embarked toward a convention. I ushered , I ran errands, I listened, I saw. And I met some of the great women of the period, from 1896 to 1912.
''Now that child,'' she continues, referring to herself, ''would have either forsworn organization entirely and led a reclusive life, or she would have done what I did - started joining, started maneuvering, started leading, and started having fun all along the way.''
If there was a bit of the ham in some of those early suffragists, there's plenty of puck in Judge Lucy Somerville Howorth. In her work in federal, state, and local government, as well as volunteer organizations, she's always tackled the sobering issues of the day with a lawyer's grasp on hard facts and a storyteller's skill with humor and empathy.
She not only graduated with first honors from the University of Mississippi Law School, but was also voted by her all-male colleagues as the student most deserving of recognition for service to the community. Five years after being admitted to the bar in her home state, she was appointed United States commissioner for the Southern District in Mississippi. Five years after that, she was elected to the Legislature.
Although she was the second woman to win a seat in the state House, her election nevertheless made headlines. After all, the first woman legislator had been her mother.
''Lucy's mother was running the Democratic Party in Mississippi before women had the vote there, and Lucy's been doing something related to women for the past 82 years,'' says a Duke University professor, Anne Firor Scott. ''Together, they ought to upset everybody's stereotypes of Mississippi.''
Following at times in her mother's legendary footsteps, Judge Howorth was part of the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic Party convention that nominated Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency, and she and her husband later followed FDR to Washington. She served several presidential appointments to the Board of Veterans Appeals and the Veterans Administration, eventually rising to become general counsel for that arm of government.
As one of a handful of women lawyers among the so-called ''New Deal women,'' Lucy Howorth ran into her share of barriers during the 25 years she spent in Washington. When she arrived in the capital, for example, women were not being admitted to the bar association there.
''The only way I knew how to break that prejudice was by persuasion, which is the whole business of being a lawyer,'' she says. ''You can't take a club and make somebody do something - you have to push and tug and try to change hearts and minds.
''We ended up - those of us who were married - getting our husbands who were in the bar to work on the other men in it. And before I left Washington, women were admitted to the District of Columbia Bar Association.''
Judge Howorth had always been an active worker in volunteer groups, and in Washington she began to focus her efforts on two organizations she thought offered the most promise for moving women into positions of responsibility - the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women. Much of her work was conducted behind the scenes, as when she led the drive to appoint the first woman to the Ohio Supreme Court and when she helped to elect the first woman president of the Federal Lawyers Association.
Although some board-room-bound junior executives might think participation in women's organizations is no longer necessary or beneficial, Judge Howorth argues otherwise.
''What is accomplished in the United States today is largely accomplished through organizations, and it's important to support those that will speak up for women. I've watched so many young women join a club, learn to speak, learn a little parliamentary law, and become an effective force.''
Radcliffe College recently honored Judge Howorth with a Lifetime Achievement Award for ''a life devoted to advancing the opportunities open to women'' on a national level. Her neighbors in Cleveland, Miss., where she and her husband ''retired'' in 1958, are equally proud of all she has done to bring a college to the town and to mobilize resources for a new public library.
''I think of Miss Lucy as being tremendously significant, far and above the fact that she is a feminist,'' says Allen Dennis, a history professor at Delta State University, who has interviewed Judge Howorth over the past 16 years as part of an ongoing oral-history project. ''It says something about her impact on the state that she's still sought after for advice by politicians of both parties here.''