Legislator. Ellis was born on April 21, 1890, in Gourdin, Williamsburg County, one of ten children of Alexander McKnight Gordon and Mary Lee Gamble. She graduated from Kingstree High School in 1909 and taught at Sutton’s School for a year. Awarded a scholarship to Winthrop Training School (College), she earned her B.A. in 1913. After graduation she taught for three years in Jasper County schools. In 1914 she met and married Junius Gather Ellis, a farmer and turpentine producer. She became the mother of three children. When her children were of school age, she boarded them with relatives in Savannah, where they would receive a better education. This belief in education soon propelled her into Jasper County politics.
Just four years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, Ellis was elected superintendent of education of Jasper County, serving from 1924 until 1928. Her school reforms stressed better teacher training, school facilities improvement, additional school supplies, and more texts. She firmly believed that education was for all children, and she provided the segregated black schools with new books instead of hand-me-downs from the white schools. However, her decisions to hire an African American administrator for black schools and to provide bus transportation for black children alienated some white citizens. In 1928 Jasper County House member H. K. Purdy had her fired. Her response was to oppose him in the next election. When Purdy filed to run for the South Carolina Senate, Ellis did as well. She won.
Elected in 1928 and taking her seat in January 1929, “Mary G,” as she was called by the all-male state Senate, became the first woman to serve in that body. Elected twice (1929–1930 and 1931–1932), Ellis served on the committees of education, incorporations, military, and charitable institutions, among others. An active senator, she proposed bills, offered amendments, debated issues, and did committee work. In particular, she championed human rights issues, especially those affecting women and African Americans. Although her public career was brief, Ellis’s progressive views on educational and racial issues stood out in an era often dominated by white supremacy and segregation. Regarding her own home county, she stated, “No society with 1,000 white adults and 4,000 black adults can survive unless all have equal education opportunities.” But her pioneering message was rarely acted on, and those favoring her positions have often been rejected (later efforts in Jasper County to name a public facility after her have all failed). Even attempts to have her portrait hung in the South Carolina State House were refused for decades. Only in 1995 did her picture take its place in the Senate chamber.
Ellis became ill with ovarian cancer and was unable to campaign effectively for reelection in 1932. She was defeated in the Democratic Party primary. She died on September 9, 1934, and was buried in Williamsburg Cemetery in Kingstree.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Berman, Pat. “The Road to Equal Rights.” Columbia State, August 26, 2000, p. D3.
Bodie, Idella. South Carolina Women. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper, 1991. Ellis, Mary Gordon. Vertical Files Collection. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.