Civic leader. McGowan was born in Columbia on January 30, 1865, the daughter of William R. Mathewes and Eliza Peronneau. Her family was from Charleston, and they returned there after living for several years after the Civil War at their summer home in Habersham County, Georgia. McGowan attended Miss Kelly’s School and then studied for a year in Sweden with Rosalie Roos, a pioneer in the women’s rights movement in that country. In 1885 she married William C. McGowan of Abbeville. They had three children before his death in 1898. After her husband’s death, McGowan moved back to Charleston and became increasingly active in civic affairs. She was the president of the League of Women Voters in Charleston, and shortly after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Governor Robert A. Cooper appointed McGowan to the State Board of Education, making her the first woman appointed to public office in South Carolina.
McGowan’s commitment to education was reflected in her other activities in public life. She became involved with the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in 1922 and served as chair of the commission’s South Carolina chapter through much of the 1920s and 1930s. In this capacity she led efforts to improve schools for African Americans around the state. She also worked to make library facilities available to all South Carolinians. In 1923 McGowan ran for alderwoman of Ward One of Charleston City Council on the platform “A free library for Charleston.” She was elected and served one term in Mayor Thomas P. Stoney’s administration as one of the first two women elected to Charleston City Council. On the council McGowan chaired the Committee on Public Charities and was on several other committees devoted to improving health, welfare, and education in Charleston. Long after her term as alderwoman, she continued to serve on the city Housing Authority.
The most lasting monument to McGowan’s civic leadership is the Charleston County Library, which grew out of her work with the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. McGowan envisioned a system of libraries in large towns and county seats and small, traveling libraries to serve rural areas. She helped to secure funding for a library in Charleston from the Rosenwald Fund and the Carnegie Corporation. The library was incorporated in 1930 and opened to the public on January 1, 1931. McGowan served on the library board of directors for twenty-six years. She published a volume of poetry, Plantation Memories, and Other Poems (1923), and was a charter member of the Poetry Society of South Carolina. At the age of ninety, McGowan retired from her many public commitments. She died in Charleston on August 13, 1956.
Allen, Louise Anderson. “Clelia McGowan’s Journey: From the Fires of War to a Life of Social Activism.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 104 (April 2003): 82–100.
McGowan, Clelia P. Plantation Memories, and Other Poems. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1923.
“Mrs. Clelia P. McGowan, Former Councilwoman, Dies,” Charleston Evening Post, August 14, 1956, p. A2.
Verner, Betty. “Charleston Woman First to Hold Office in State.” Charleston News and Courier, February 25, 1931, p. B10.
Waring, Thomas R. “Traveler’s Saga Published.” Charleston News and Courier / Evening Post, July 4, 1982, p. E2.