Outsiders say that if the NAACP had picked a female president, it could have put to rest the stigma of allegations that Mfume ran the national office amid a climate of sexual favoritism. The allegations forced the NAACP to reportedly pay a former female employee a settlement of nearly $100,000. Mfume - now a Senate candidate in Maryland - has denied the accusations and the existence of a settlement, saying he resigned voluntarily.
The allegations came a decade after Chavis was forced out of the organization amid a sex scandal and financial misconduct that landed the organization $3 million in debt.
The absence of women in leadership roles is steeped in civil rights history. The civil rights movement was built upon the prominence of leading men, say scholars, while women - consistent with the roles of other women in America during that era - played support roles. It's the reason that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is considered a legend, while civil rights activist Ella Baker is a little-known footnote, says Smith.
But women orchestrated rallies and did the hard work upon which the movement was built, argues civil rights historian Manning Marable in a new book, The Autobiography of Medgar Evers.
Throughout the movement, women made phone calls, visited people's homes, organized community meetings and mobilized supporters, Marable writes. Activists Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Robinson played key roles in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. And Baker, often critical of the NAACP leadership structure, helped organize the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom at the Washington Mall in 1957, according to Marable's book.
In fact, women led the NAACP in the group's early years. The first three executive secretaries - as the president was then called - were women. A woman ran the board of directors from 1919 to 1934, then from 1975 to 1983, and Evers-Williams held the chairmanship from 1995 to 1998.
Three women, including Dukes and Baltimore native Enolia McMillan, have also held the ceremonial post of NAACP national president. And Roslyn Brock is the organization's vice chairwoman, the first woman to hold the position.
Even so, critics argue that civil rights organizations are hindered by a long-standing male-dominated structure.
"Women were not presidents back then; most were male," Dukes said. "And in the Southern states, there's no doubt about it that the attitude of men was for women to play a supportive role."
But that is changing, she said, crediting Evers-Williams with proving skeptics wrong.
"She did such a good job, that nobody could look at a woman as being weak and unable to stand up to the pressure," she said. "She set a precedent."
Still, Dukes said that there are some on the NAACP board who wouldn't favor a woman leader.
"But they are not the people who were on the search committee," she said.
Huffman argues that the visibility of women in leadership roles may be a matter of perception. Within the board, women are strong, even dominating, but the public image of the NAACP is often male, she said.
Mfume is often credited with repairing the NAACP's image and returning the organization to financial solvency. But it was Evers-Williams who laid the groundwork that eliminated the $3 million debt, says Huffman.
"She doesn't get the credit for bringing us out of the debt we were in and updating our image," she said. "I think Mfume is riding on Myrlie Evers' coattails. But I think it has to do more with the fact that Myrlie wasn't the kind of person with the type of ego to constantly promote herself."
Huffman said she thinks many women are reluctant to put themselves into the limelight. But she hopes that that is changing.
"I give lectures on this all the time," she said. "I tell people: 'Don't be shy about your skills; don't be cocky about them, either. But this is a world in which you have to promote yourself to get ahead.'"