Viola Ross Napier was elected to Georgia’s House of Representatives in 1922, only two years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants women the right to vote. Elected as a representative from Bibb County, Napier became one of the first two women to hold elected office in the state. (Bessie Kempton, of Fulton County, was elected at the same time.) During her two terms, the widowed mother of four sponsored legislation to improve children’s rights and to increase protection for the blind and handicapped.
Napier was born in Macon, which her grandfather had helped found, on February 14, 1881, to Anne and Edgar Ross. She was a schoolteacher when she met and married lawyer Hendley Napier Jr. in 1907; they had four children. Napier lived a conventional life until her husband died during the flu epidemic of 1919, after which she decided to follow a longtime interest and become a lawyer in order to better support her family. She attended Judge E. W. Maynard’s night school and passed the bar exam in 1920.
Because the few women lawyers of the day were generally not welcome in male-run law practices, Napier started her own practice. Primarily representing other women and the indigent, she became the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court of Georgia and before the Court of Appeals of Georgia. She was also the first woman to win a pardon for a convicted client before the client served any of her sentence.
During her legislative career, from 1923 to 1926, Napier sponsored bills to make improvements in schools for the blind and for handicapped children, to install fire escapes in schools, and to change the method of capital punishment from hanging to electrocution, which was considered more humane. She also introduced a 1923 bill that “required teaching of the State and Federal Constitution in all state supported educational institutions,” which passed.
In 1927, when Napier lost her bid for a third term as a state representative, Macon mayor Luther Williams offered her the job of city clerk, which she held for the next twenty-seven years. She served five mayors as an unofficial legal counsel and was responsible for keeping minutes of city council meetings, managing the sales and inspection of city business licenses, managing the city pound, and writing speeches for mayors. Napier also wrote the city pension plan that Macon used until Social Security superseded it. She retired as Macon city clerk at the age of seventy-two and died nine years later, in 1962.
In 1993 Napier was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.