Legislator. Keyserling was born in New York City on April 4, 1922, the only daughter of Isador Hirschfeld, a prominent periodontist, and Pauline Steinberg. She married Herbert Keyserling on June 24, 1944, while he was a young physician in the navy during World War II, and they moved to his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1946. They have two daughters and two sons.
The story of Keyserling’s transition from a transplanted New York liberal Jewish housewife to an eight-term member of the South Carolina legislature—where beginning at age fifty-four she left a mark battling for the public interest—is told in her much-acclaimed 1998 memoir, Against the Tide. Beginning as a shy woman who lacked self-confidence, Keyserling moved from volunteer leader to political activist, first as a member of Beaufort County Council and then winning election to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1976. “Caring passionately was another change wrought in me by eighteen years in politics,” Keyserling wrote. “As my ego gradually built up, it allowed me to feel passionate about causes and people. In my other life I would not let myself feel so strongly about politics or anything else, because I didn’t see myself as able to do anything about them. . . . But when I finally found myself in a position of knowing I could make a difference, the passion came bubbling up, like adrenalin during stress. Which is fortunate, because without the intensity and drive created by passion, I could not have won any of those battles and I would not have challenged others, even when I knew they were wrong and I was right.”
Keyserling led successful efforts to improve state funding for the arts, became a major critic of state policy on nuclear waste storage, and provided an influential voice on broad policy issues involving energy. She joined with a small group of fellow progressives, the self-named “Crazy Caucus,” that throughout the 1980s fought for “the public interest against special interests.”
As a legislator, Keyserling worked closely with black Democrats on progressive legislation, especially Governor Richard W. Riley’s Education Improvement Act. She writes forthrightly about racial tensions that developed within the Democratic Party after black Democrats joined with Republicans on reapportionment following the 1990 census to create a maximum number of black majority legislative districts. Packing black voters into those districts jeopardized progressive white Democrats such as Keyserling. Some ran again and lost. She was among others who chose to retire, and Republicans soon gained control of the state House of Representatives. Her son Billy succeeded her in the legislature and served two terms, the second as an independent.
Keyserling remained active in state and local issues, returning to family life in Beaufort as a new woman. “I like the fact that I can openly disagree with others and not worry that I may discomfort them or that they might not like me if I challenge them,” she says. “I like my new freedom to speak my mind. I feel released from my old shackles of insecurity and timidity.”
Keyserling, Harriet. Against the Tide: A Woman’s Political Struggle. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.