The enfranchisement of women in South Carolina was first discussed publicly during the Reconstruction period. A women’s rights convention held in Columbia in December 1870 received a warm letter of support from Governor R. K. Scott. In 1872 the General Assembly endorsed a petition of the American Woman Suffrage Association to grant women political rights, but it adjourned without taking any specific action. The earliest suffrage clubs in the state were not organized until the 1890s, but suffragists were beginning to receive notice. Writing for the Charleston News and Courier in 1882, the journalist N. G. Gonzales described the typical suffragist as “thirty to sixty, a majority of considerable embonpoint, a majority passable looking, a majority with gray hair and a majority wearing bright colors.”
Virginia Durant Young of Fairfax almost single-handedly transformed the South Carolina woman suffrage climate in the 1890s. Wife of a country town doctor who supported her endeavors, Young came to the suffrage cause via church work and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She championed both prohibition and votes for women in her weekly, the Fairfax Enterprise. Together with a “little knot of (temperance) women,” in April 1890 in Greenville, Young formed the South Carolina Equal Rights Association (SCERA), which soon claimed memberships from places as small as Frogmore (Beaufort County) and Chitty (Barnwell County) to cities such as Charleston and Columbia. Young soon aligned the SCERA with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which constituted a committee for the southern states in 1892 and named Young a vice president for South Carolina.
Young found a crucial suffrage ally in Robert R. Hemphill, editor of the Abbeville Medium and a longtime member of the South Carolina Senate. In December 1892 she persuaded Hemphill to introduce a joint resolution to allow women to vote and hold office, although this was unsuccessful. The next year Young got Hemphill to introduce a petition claiming that the state was violating her civil rights as a tax-paying citizen by denying her the ballot, but no debate resulted.
Suffragists became increasingly active in 1895. Several, including Young and Senator Hemphill, attended the NAWSA convention in Atlanta in 1895 and hosted Susan B. Anthony on her return north. They vigorously lobbied legislators at the 1895 constitutional convention, hoping to get educated, property-owning women enfranchised. In so doing, they argued giving white women the vote could achieve the goal of restricting black political power. Young, the prominent suffragist Laura Clay, and several other enthusiasts visited twenty-three towns in the spring of 1895 hoping to gain converts and start new suffrage clubs. Numerous factors, however, including the influence of conservative religious groups and ties of the suffrage movement to abolitionism and the controversial Grimké sisters, coupled with the widely held view that the women’s rights movement was “against Scripture, against nature, and against commonsense,” insured legislative failure. Following rejection of an amendment to extend the franchise to women possessing three hundred dollars worth of taxable property, the South Carolina woman suffrage movement entered a near twenty-year period of dormancy. The SCERA disintegrated with Young’s death in 1906.
The September 1912 formation in Spartanburg of the New Era Club, which was committed to advancing “the industrial, legal and educational rights of women and children,” signaled a revival of the cause in the state. The pace quickened in spring 1914 when visits to Columbia and Charleston by Lila Meade Valentine, founder of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, resulted in leagues in those cities and, in May 1914, formation of the South Carolina Equal Suffrage League (SCESL). There were twenty-five leagues and a membership of three thousand by the time of the convention of 1917. Aligned with NAWSA, the SCESL carefully distanced itself from the English-style militancy of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), supporters of a federal suffrage amendment.
Recognizing the uphill battle before it, the SCESL initially kept its legislative work on a small scale and focused on organization and education. The league distributed literature at state and county fairs, clubs, and schools. Outside speakers, including NAWSA leader Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, were brought to the state. The first suffrage parade was held during the 1914 State Fair. An overall plan to organize counties, towns, and wards was drafted.
Foremost leaders in the final suffrage drive were Susan Pringle Frost of Charleston and Eulalie Chaffee Salley of Aiken, both professional realtors and arguably the state’s most controversial feminists. An eighth-generation Charlestonian and grande dame of that city’s historic preservation movement, Frost headed the Charleston Equal Suffrage League (CESL) until December 1917, when she narrowly failed to align it with Alice Paul’s NWP and resigned to form a Woman’s Party branch, one of three in the state. Frost and her small group of Paul partisans, including Anita Pollitzer, later head of the national organization, continued to promote woman suffrage during the war years, and Frost joined one of the demonstrations against President Wilson in Washington. Eulalie Salley was organizer and president of the Aiken Equal Suffrage League and, in 1919, SCESL president. An aggressive and innovative suffrage campaigner, Salley once boxed in a prizefight to raise money and scattered suffrage pamphlets over Aiken while hanging out of an airplane.
With the death of Ben Tillman in 1918, South Carolina suffragists concentrated lobby efforts on his interim replacement in the U.S. Senate, William Pollock of Cheraw. With the Senate only two votes shy of passing the Anthony amendment in October 1918, an intense and successful “Helping Pollock to Declare” campaign was waged. However, his was the only additional vote in favor of the amendment. Although his replacement voted against the Nineteenth Amendment, it was passed in 1919.
The journalist William Watts Ball observed in January 1920 that “legions of suffragists . . . painfully excited” had descended on the state capitol in Columbia as ratification was debated in the General Assembly. Despite the heroic support of Beaufort legislator Neils Christensen, however, the cause was hopeless. The S.C. House rejected the amendment 93 to 21, the S.C. Senate 32 to 3. Following national ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the South Carolina General Assembly reluctantly passed a law giving women the right to vote but simultaneously passed another statute excluding women from jury duty. Patriarchal and recalcitrant to the end, the state finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment in 1969. Standing behind the governor on the occasion, eighty-six-year-old Eulalie Salley reputedly had the last word, remarking, “Boys, I’ve been waiting fifty years to tell you what I think of you.”
Bland, Sidney R. Preserving Charleston’s Past, Shaping Its Future: The Life and Times of Susan Pringle Frost. 2d ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Bull, Emily L. Eulalie. Aiken, S.C.: Kalmia, 1973.
Herndon, Eliza. “Woman Suffrage in South Carolina: 1872–1920.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1953.
Taylor, Antoinette Elizabeth. “South Carolina and the Enfranchisement of Women: The Early Years.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 77 (April 1976): 115–26.
———. “South Carolina and the Enfranchisement of Women: The Later Years.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80 (October 1979): 298–310.
Ulmer, Barbara Bellows. “Virginia Durant Young: New South Suffragist.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1979.