Mary Dawson Cain was born near Burke, Louisiana, and spent most of her life in Pike County, Mississippi. From 1936 to 1984, she served as owner and editor of the Summit Sun, the weekly newspaper of the small Southwest Mississippi community. Cain distinguished herself as a foe of big government and an advocate of states’ rights, battles she fought in her newspaper, in the courts, on the campaign trail, and as a leader in various conservative organizations. Cain used her newspaper as a mouthpiece to critique the federal government. She was a vocal opponent of Prohibition, the New Deal, civil rights, and other programs that expanded federal government powers over the states. She was active in organizations and movements that supported her worldview, including the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform and the Dixiecrat splinter party. In addition, in the wake of the integration of the University of Mississippi Cain became a founding member of Women for Constitutional Government and served as the group’s state and national president.
Cain made history as the first woman to run for governor of Mississippi, though both her 1951 and 1955 bids failed. Her platform called for reduced federal influence in the state. Her prominence as a public figure led to her appointment to the speakers’ bureaus of the Citizens’ Council and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, and on several occasions, she lectured around the country on the topic of states’ rights. During the turbulent decades of the civil rights movement, Cain argued against integration. She nevertheless believed herself to be a friend of the African American community. Her newspaper regularly featured a column devoted to news of Summit’s African American community and incorporated photographs and courtesy titles (e.g., Mr., Mrs.), an unusual practice for a white-owned southern newspaper in this period.
She is perhaps best known nationally for her refusal to pay self-employment taxes in 1951, the first year that the Social Security Administration implemented the tax. An ardent opponent of personal income taxes, Cain argued that the self-employment tax was unconstitutional. The Internal Revenue Department (IRD) then seized and padlocked her newspaper office, but she took a hacksaw to the padlock and mailed it back to the IRD with a defiant note inviting legal action. This episode earned her national press attention and the nickname Hacksaw Mary. The IRD responded with a civil suit. The case eventually made its way to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. In an effort to avoid paying future self-employment taxes, she sold her newspaper for one dollar to a relative. Cain reportedly never paid the back taxes owed to the IRD.
- Lisa K. Speer, “‘Contrary Mary’: The Life of Mary Dawson Cain” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1998)