Civic leader, businesswoman. Gridley was born on September 7, 1850, in Hillston, Massachusetts, the daughter of George Putnam and Mary Jane Shearson. She was educated in the public schools of Boston and graduated from Boston High. She finished Boston Normal School in 1871 and taught for three years in Peabody, Massachusetts. In the 1870s she moved with her family to Greenville, South Carolina, where her father became active in the development of cotton mills.
In 1876 Mary Putnam married Isaac A. Gridley, who died two years later. The couple had no children. Soon after her husband’s death, Gridley went to work for her father, who purchased Batesville Mill, a cotton factory, in 1879. Working as her father’s assistant and as mill bookkeeper, Gridley mastered the daily operations of management and administration. Following her father’s death in 1890, she assumed the position of mill president, the first woman mill president in South Carolina. In this capacity Gridley signed her name “M. P. Gridley,” as she believed many questioned women’s abilities to lead business enterprises. Gridley remained at the helm of the mill for twenty-two years, until it was sold in 1912.
In 1889 Gridley and Frances Perry Beattie formed the Thursday Club, a literary and study club for elite Greenville women. One of the earliest women’s clubs in the south and the first in the state, the Thursday Club signaled the onset of the women’s club movement in early-twentieth-century South Carolina. The club provided an opportunity for its members to consider and discuss literature and current events. Beattie served as the club’s first president, and Gridley as vice-president. Soon after the club’s organization, however, Beattie resigned and Gridley assumed the presidency, a position she held for the next forty years.
Under Gridley’s presidency the Thursday Club in 1898 became one of the charter members of the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs (SCFWC), an organization that quickly developed an agenda to address a wide range of cultural, educational, and social issues. Gridley assumed a key role in the development of the women’s club movement in Greenville and organized a Woman’s Bureau to coordinate their various activities. Throughout her life she maintained an active involvement in the SCFWC.
In 1915 Gridley helped spearhead the organization of the Hopewell Tuberculosis Association to provide health services for Greenville’s tuberculosis patients. She headed the association’s board, and, under her leadership, the group opened a model tuberculosis camp and clinic at the Greenville City Hospital. She advocated and secured support for a comprehensive tuberculosis sanitarium, which opened in 1930 on Piney Mountain.
Gridley’s civic activities encompassed a range of interests. She supported women’s suffrage and was a leader in the Greenville Equal Suffrage Club. She assumed a critical role in the establishment of the Neblett Free Library in 1897, the first public library in Greenville. Gridley became an advocate for the establishment of public playgrounds for Greenville’s youth and was credited with opening and securing staff for six city playgrounds.
In her roles as clubwoman, civic leader and business executive, Gridley represented the emergence of new interests in South Carolina women and their desire to participate in discourse and decision making on public issues. She died in Greenville on December 19, 1939, and was buried in Christ Church cemetery.
Barton, Eleanor Keese. “First Woman’s Club in This State Organized by Mrs. M. P. Gridley.” Greenville Piedmont, April 3, 1931, p. 14.
Chapman, Judson. “Mrs. M. P. Gridley.” Greenville Piedmont, July 12 1935, pp. 1, 4.
Huff, Archie Vernon, Jr. Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Lesley, Wanda. “Greenvillian Was Ahead of Her Time.” Greenville News- Piedmont, February 9, 1975, p. 4B.
Pettigrew, Loulie Latimer. The Thursday Club, Greenville, South Carolina, 1889–1989. Greenville, S.C.: Graphics Now, 1988.