By the time Isabella Cannon became the first female mayor of Raleigh at age 73, she had already had quite a bit of adventure in her life.
Born in Scotland, she came to the United States in 1916 at age 12 on a British steamship being "chased by a German submarine." As a young wife, she lived in Liberia and Baghdad, following her husband's career in the diplomatic service. She lived for a short time in Raleigh before moving to Washington DC. Her husband worked several more years overseas. His health began to deteriorate, and he died soon after their return to North Carolina.
She became known as a neighborhood activist and pretty soon, she found herself being talked into running for mayor against incumbent Jyles Coggins.
In a 1993 interview with the Southern Oral History program, she recalled the excitement of that 1977 campaign.
I was unknown to the biggest segment of the population, certainly to the wealthy segment, and to the big business and developers. I was known to ordinary people. I had no money, I had no organization, but I said, "Ok, let's go for it." I threw myself into it, fully expecting to win. I was always surprised when someone would say to me, "Aren't you surprised that you won?" I replied, "I went in there to win—I didn't go in to lose."
My campaign was the most fun, the most exciting campaign that anyone ever ran. It started out with my newspaper boy bringing me one dollar. I wish I had kept that dollar, but that's the sort of support I had—$10 here, $25 here, a very, very, rare $100 that I received as a contribution. Volunteers came from everywhere. ... I would go to the grocery store and come home with my handbag full of little slips of paper with names of people saying, "I want to help." The telephone would ring, "We want to help."
It was a people's movement and was exciting. I made speeches all over, anywhere. I was going from eight o'clock in the morning to midnight making speeches. I went anywhere and everywhere, and I had fun doing it. ... I ran as "The little old lady in tennis shoes" for a special reason. I live near NC State University and near Fred Olds School. At that time, it was the most derogatory thing you could say about anybody, "Oh, she dresses like a little old lady in tennis shoes," or "She thinks like a little old lady in tennis shoes." It made me angry because I saw all these young people walking by my door and what did they have on their feet? Sneakers, tennis shoes. It is no longer a derogatory comment, and perhaps I helped to change it.
If Mrs. Cannon had been so sure she would win the election, perhaps she was the only one.
Mr. Coggins really suffered by having a female run as his opponent. He was shocked. I had filed one hour before the deadline, and no one had thought that there was going to be a competition or that anybody else was going to file. He thought he was going to breeze in without any difficulty. ... It was total shock to the big business people and the developers. My campaign had been a joke to them, and I think the idea of "the little old lady in tennis shoes" perhaps added to them thinking of me as a joke. The business community had not taken me seriously. And Mr. Coggins himself really did not think I was going to win. He never conceded my election, never once admitted that I had won.
Immediately following the election that night, there was an explosion of media. I had telephone calls from Scotland, from the newspapers there, and from all over the United States. It was featured in newspapers from Tehran to Tokyo. The Stars and Stripes featured it in Japan. Reuters, the international news agency, picked it up, and it went all over the world since I had lived in Africa and The Middle East. I had fan clubs in Germany. There were people who wrote me from Australia, from Canada, from Korea. It was a real media explosion. Not only that, but in the United States ... Every major newspaper all over the United States featured me. Seventy-two major newspapers and magazines from all over the world, sixteen major magazines.
Being the first female mayor, and a tiny lady at that, brought its own special problems. The city council met behind a large, imposing table. The mayor's chair either sat so high that her feet didn't touch the floor, or if the chair were lowered to reach the floor, she couldn't be seen over the table.
The job brought other challenges, and there were clashes with a city council sympathetic to business and development interests. They did, however establish the first-ever comprehensive plan for the Capital City to help guide Raleigh's growth and make steps toward cooperating with the county on growth plans.
Her time as mayor lasted only two years. She was defeated in 1979 by fellow councilman Smedes York.
Unlike Coggins, Smedes York didn't underestimate Cannon. He treated her gently, outspent her 3-to-1 and beat her, 52 percent to 46 percent.
Cannon hardly acted like a woman defeated. "My voice will not be stilled, " she told her supporters on Election Night.
"She believed in the things she advocated, very strongly, " York said Thursday. "She didn't pick an issue just to get elected. She was an active neighborhood supporter before she was elected mayor, while she was mayor and after she was mayor. Certainly, in many respects, she could be a little feisty. But she was a very excellent speaker and very energetic and very intelligent. She is a very easy person to admire." -- The News & Observer 2/15/2002
Isabella Cannon, at barely 5 feet, lost her re-election bid to the 6'4 Smedes York