Clubwomen, social reformers. Born in Charleston on September 4, 1866, and December 13, 1868, respectively, Mary and Louisa Poppenheim were the eldest daughters of Christopher Pritchard Poppenheim and Mary Elinor Bouknight. The son of a rice planter, their father moved to Charleston after the Civil War and opened a successful dry goods store. After preparatory work at Charleston Female Seminary, Mary and Louisa attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, graduating in 1888 and 1889, respectively. They returned to Charleston with leadership skills and a desire to promote women’s education.
The Poppenheims helped bring the burgeoning women’s club movement to Charleston, as founding members and officers of the Century Club, the Civic Club, the Intercollegiate Club, and the Charleston City Federation of Clubs. Louisa attended the organizational meeting of the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs (SCFWC) and became its second president. As a clubwoman, Louisa entreated South Carolina women to take up social reform in addition to literary study, which was initially favored by most clubs. Her interests included working to improve schools and libraries and to fund higher education for women. Louisa also prevailed upon Charleston politicians to appoint a matron to aid female prisoners and chaired the Municipal Playground Commission, the first municipal commission to have female members.
Beyond South Carolina, Louisa played a key role in bringing southern women into the national club movement. She attended meetings all over the South, where she helped organize other state federations. More importantly, Louisa persuaded southern women that they had an important role to play in the national movement, especially in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. She attended national conventions and was corresponding secretary and an honorary vice president of the General Federation. Louisa also used the Keystone, a monthly journal that she and her sister owned and edited from 1899 to 1913, to encourage southern clubwomen’s activities. The journal eventually became the official organ for clubwomen and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in several states, including North Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and Virginia. The Keystone contained editorials, club news, short fiction, book reviews, and assorted articles on southern life, women’s organizations, education, and social reform.
While Louisa embraced women’s clubs, Mary focused on the UDC. She was president of the South Carolina division and then president-general of the national organization from 1917 to 1919. Mary was most interested in preserving history and was one of the editors of the first two volumes of South Carolina Women in the Confederacy, a collection of personal reminiscences published by the state UDC in 1903 and 1907. She also led South Carolina’s fund-raising efforts for a UDC monument at Shiloh. Under her guidance, the UDC endowed seventy hospital beds at an American military hospital in Neuilly, France, during World War I.
The Poppenheim sisters lived at their parents’ home at 31 Meeting Street until their deaths, Mary on February 12, 1936, and Louisa on March 4, 1957. Both were buried at Magnolia Cemetery.
Alumnae Biographical Files. Alumnae House, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York.
Johnson, Joan M. “‘This Wonderful Dream Nation!’: Black and White South Carolina Women and the Creation of the New South, 1898–1930.” Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1997.
South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs. Papers. Special Collections, Dacus Library, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, South Carolina.