Legislator, congresswoman. Born in Columbia on November 18, 1939, “Liz” Patterson is the third child of Olin Dewitt Johnston and Gladys Atkinson. Her father served both as governor of South Carolina and as a U.S. senator. She received a public school elementary education in Kensington, Maryland, and graduated from Spartanburg High School in 1957. After receiving her B.A. degree from Columbia College in 1961, Patterson did graduate work in political science at the University of South Carolina. After completing her formal education, Patterson served as a public affairs officer with the Peace Corps (1962–1964), with VISTA (1965–1966) in Washington, D.C., and as an administrator with the Head Start program in Columbia (1966–1968). She married the attorney Dwight Fleming Patterson of Spartanburg on April 15, 1967. The marriage produced three children.
Often active in community and Democratic Party politics, Patterson worked as a staff assistant for Congressman James Mann in 1969 and 1970. In 1975 she was elected to the Spartanburg County Council to fill an unexpired term, serving until 1976. Patterson was later elected to the South Carolina Senate, where she served from 1979 to 1986. In office, Patterson advocated fiscal responsibility and carefully scrutinized budgets to eliminate what she deemed to be unnecessary spending. She also favored improved health care and educational services. While in the state Senate, Patterson served as a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Hunger and Nutrition.
In 1986 Patterson ran for the U.S. Congress. In the predominantly Republican Fourth District, she defeated Republican candidate William Workman III, the mayor of Greenville. She served in Congress for three terms (1987–1993). Known as a conservative Democrat, Patterson continued to promote budget reform. She also served on committees dealing with banking, veterans’ affairs, hunger, and international competitiveness. In addition, she was a member and later chair of the bipartisan Congressional Textile Caucus, a group dedicated to promoting the textile industry, traditionally a major source of jobs in upstate South Carolina.
Patterson lost her reelection bid in 1992 to conservative Republican Bob Inglis of Greenville. During the campaign, Inglis highlighted his dedication to term limits and his opposition to political action committees, which had provided a large portion of Patterson’s campaign contributions. The Christian Coalition, which opposed her, also figured in Patterson’s defeat. After the election, in discussing her loss, Patterson stated about her constituents, “I thought they would realize how hard I’d worked for them.” She added, “I know these people. . . . They know me. I can’t believe they would question my life, my God, my religion.”
Not yet ready to abandon her political career, Patterson sought the office of lieutenant governor in 1994. She won a contested Democratic primary but lost in the general election to Republican Bob Peeler. Having already begun work as director of continuing education at Converse College, she remained in that post after her election defeat. In her life, Patterson has exemplified the improved public options available to southern women of her generation.
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.
Patterson, Elizabeth Johnston. Papers. Modern Political Collections, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Rosenfeld, Megan. “Anatomy of a Defeat.” Washington Post, November 12, 1992, pp. D1, D8.