Although women constitute a majority of South Carolina’s population, they have had to overcome many of the same barriers to equality as have women across the nation. During the colonial and antebellum periods and for many years after, South Carolina women lacked legal rights, had little access to education, and had few means available to support themselves other than depending on husbands, fathers, or other male relatives. By the twenty-first century South Carolina women had knocked down many of these barriers but still lagged on many indicators, including education, employment, income, and health care. This may be attributed at least in part to the state’s conservative culture, in which change comes slowly and women have been seen first and foremost as wives and mothers. Nonwhite women have also had to overcome racial discrimination. A portrait of the state in 2000 would show that South Carolina had a smaller percentage of white women (65.6) and a larger percentage of African American (30.4) and other nonwhite women (4) than did the nation as a whole. The percentage of Hispanic women (1.9) was low but growing.
The story of South Carolina’s women is one of slow progress. While women could inherit money and property in colonial and antebellum South Carolina, only single women and widows could own property and sign contracts. When a woman married, her husband gained the ownership of her property unless her family had set up a trust or some other kind of legal settlement. Married women had no other legal protection for their property until 1868 when the delegates at the state constitutional convention gave them the right to make contracts and to control property. Protecting women’s property was in part a recognition that some husbands were not good stewards of their family’s affairs.
In the domestic sphere, the power of the husband was generally unchecked by the law. With the exception of a brief period in the late 1860s, South Carolina had no provision for divorce until 1949. A woman who sought an out-of-state divorce might lose custody of her children. By the late 1970s, however, state laws required that decisions about child custody and support be made based on the best interests of the child and the ability of the parents to provide support. The state did not recognize marital rape as a crime until 1991. In 2000, in acknowledgment of the state’s number one ranking in the rate at which women were killed by men, Governor James Hodges appointed a task force to address the issue of domestic violence. In 2001 the General Assembly passed a bill adding a $20 fee to marriage licenses, with revenues earmarked for women’s shelters. The state began to increase prosecutions of men charged with domestic violence, which became a felony in 2003. As of 2002 South Carolina ranked third in the nation in the rates at which men killed their wives and female partners.
During the colonial and antebellum periods, education for women focused on skills considered appropriate to make them good wives and mothers. The abolitionist Sarah Grimké of Charleston described the women of her class in her “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes” as “butterflies of the fashionable world” whose “education is miserably deficient.” By the 1840s some private schools existed around the state, making a classical education available to upper-class women. But few educational opportunities were available for the poor through most of the 1800s and early 1900s. As late as 1900 only fifty-four percent of South Carolina girls under age fifteen were attending school.
In the 1850s several religious denominations established women’s colleges. But much of the impetus for the establishment of women’s colleges came in the latter part of the nineteenth century and grew out of a need for teachers to staff the public schools that had been provided for under the 1868 constitution. Columbia school superintendent D. B. Johnson obtained a grant to set up a one-year training course in 1886 at what became Winthrop Training School. The school in 1891 became a state-supported institution emphasizing vocational training for white women and eventually expanded into a four-year teachers’ college. Many of the private and church-related women’s colleges of the era did not offer vocational courses, providing instead a more traditional liberal arts program as well as religion, art, music, and ethics courses for the “genteel” southern woman.
There were no private colleges for African American women. Many attended coeducational African American institutions such as Claflin College, founded in 1869. In the pre–civil rights era, public colleges in the state were segregated by race. Although the University of South Carolina began admitting white women in the mid-1890s, it was 1963 before Henrie Monteith became the first African American woman to attend that university. By the end of the twentieth century the percentage of African Americans attending public universities remained low compared to the percentage of African Americans residing in the state.
In the late twentieth century women in South Carolina were still less likely than women in the nation as a whole to have completed a four-year college degree or even to have finished high school. The state’s women were legally entitled to the same educational opportunities and scholarships as the state’s men, but cultural barriers still remained. With Shannon Faulkner’s admission to the Citadel in 1995 and Nancy Mace’s graduation from that institution in 1999, women breached the state’s most ardent bastion of all-male higher education.
Employment opportunities were limited for women prior to the twentieth century. In early South Carolina, especially in Charleston, some women (known as “femme sole traders”) ran shops or other businesses. But by the early 1800s cultural expectations in American society dictated that women should remain in the private, or domestic, sphere away from the world of government and commerce, although middle-and upper-class women were expected to act as hostesses for their husbands, run their households, and, in the South, supervise slaves. The southern lady became a cultural icon, placed on a pedestal where she would not soil her hands with hard labor. She was described by the scholar Anne Firor Scott as “a submissive wife whose reason for being was to love, honor, obey, and occasionally amuse her husband, to bring up his children, and to manage his household.” The pedestal, however, was never an option for poor white women in the state. By the late 1840s around thirteen percent of South Carolina’s white labor force consisted of women who had to work for a living. Nor was the pedestal an option for African American women in South Carolina. Most were enslaved in the period prior to the Civil War and lived in poverty in the years after. By 1900 about thirty-eight percent of all South Carolina women were employed outside of the home. About fourteen percent of all white women worked, while about two-thirds of all African American women were employed, a majority in the fields. Others were likely to hold jobs as mill workers if they were white, or as maids or laundresses if they were black.
More women joined the labor force in the twentieth century. About three-fifths of all South Carolina women were employed outside of the home by 2000, and the state ranked sixteenth in the nation in terms of the percentage of women who held professional and managerial positions. Women owned more than 64,000 South Carolina businesses.
Few professions were open to South Carolina women prior to the twentieth century. In 1918 the General Assembly passed legislation permitting women to practice law, and James M. “Miss Jim” Perry became the state’s first woman lawyer that same year. More than fifty years later, in 1983, Judy Cone Bridges became the state’s first female judge with her election by the General Assembly to the family court. In 1988 Jean Toal became the first woman to serve on the South Carolina Supreme Court (becoming chief justice in 2000) and also in 1988 Carol Connor became the first woman to serve on the state circuit court. Connor became the first female judge on the state court of appeals in 1993, and Kay Hearn became its first female chief justice in 2000. South Carolina’s first woman physician, Sara Campbell Allen, began to practice in 1894. In 1900 less than five percent of the state’s physicians were women. By 2000 women comprised nearly twenty percent of the total.
Despite the limitations that attitudes and law placed on women’s roles, South Carolina women were actively involved in charitable and religious organizations throughout the 1800s. In the antebellum period, women’s organizations in communities across the state helped the poor. The Ladies Benevolent Association in Charleston, for example, raised money and went into the slums to help those in need. In the late 1800s, through the efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other groups, the sale of liquor was outlawed in much of the state. Members of this group were among those who brought the debate over suffrage to the forefront. A tradition of activism continued into the next century. In the early 1900s women’s groups provided an outlet for women to sell their crafts in Charleston, lobbied for a public health nurse in Dillon County, and supported the building of libraries. White women’s groups also raised money for statues and other Confederate memorials. The League of Women Voters emerged after women gained the vote in 1920. The state league supported “Peace . . . education, better babies . . . good roads,” and other progressive causes. African American women formed their own groups in a segregated society. They set up an umbrella organization, the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, in 1910. During much of the twentieth century, women such as Septima Poinsette Clark and Modjeska Simkins worked for civil rights through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Like most American women, South Carolina’s women lacked the right to vote until passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. Although South Carolina women were among the officers of the Equal Rights Association as early as 1869, there was little active support from the state’s women. Delegates to South Carolina’s 1895 constitutional convention defeated a proposal to allow women to vote, with the state senator John T. Sloan, Jr., declaring that God “never intended her to be put on an equality with man in any respect.” By the early 1900s woman suffrage was becoming a mainstream issue, with support from some middle-class women’s organizations. White women organized suffrage leagues around the state under the leadership of such women as Eulalie Salley and Susan Pringle Frost. Black women were excluded from these organizations. The Nineteenth Amendment was passed into law without the support of South Carolina’s General Assembly, which did not ratify it until 1969. The General Assembly did pass a law giving women the right to vote once the Nineteenth Amendment became law, and some women registered and began to vote. At the same time, the legislature passed a law excluding women from jury duty. This exclusion remained in effect until 1967. The legislature did not ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
Following suffrage, a few women began to run for political office, often based on an interest in improving education. Kate Vixon Wofford, elected as superintendent of education in Laurens County in 1922, was the first woman elected to office in South Carolina. In 1928 Mary Gordon Ellis of Jasper County became the first woman elected to the state Senate. Harriet Frazier Johnson of York County became the first woman elected to the S.C. House of Representatives in 1945. Both of these legislators were interested in improving education and in improving the lives of African Americans. With her 1978 election as lieutenant governor, Nancy Stevenson became the first woman elected to a statewide office in South Carolina. By 2003 two women had held the office of state superintendent of education, Barbara Nielson and Inez Tenenbaum. At the national level, in 1938 Elizabeth Hawley Gasque of Florence became the first of five South Carolina women to be elected to Congress. With the exception of Elizabeth Patterson, however, all were chosen to complete their late husbands’ terms under the “widow’s mandate.”
By 2000 fifty-six percent of the state’s registered voters were female, ranking first in the South Atlantic region in both registration and turnout. South Carolina was one of only fifteen states with a women’s caucus in both houses of its legislature as well as a commission on women. But women in the state have not seen themselves as an interest group or a voting bloc. As the political analyst Whit Ayres noted, “Party is a whole lot more important than gender when it comes to voting.” Prior to 1970 only nine women had been elected to the General Assembly. In 2003 sixteen members of the legislature were women, the smallest percentage of female state legislators in the country. With the exception of Democrat Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who had served as House minority leader, women had held virtually no leadership positions in the General Assembly. With just a handful of women legislators, the Women’s Caucus, founded in 1982, was unable to bring about change or even develop a consensus on many legislative priorities. The state’s governors had appointed only a few women to cabinet positions or to positions on boards and commissions. In 2003, during a time of tight budgets, Governor Mark Sanford vetoed funding for the state’s Commission on Women, stating that he would cover its functions with part-time support from staff in his office.
Despite substantial gains, South Carolina’s women by 2000 still had not achieved parity. The poverty rate for South Carolina women was almost thirteen percent in 1999, and twenty-six percent for African American women. More than thirty percent of households headed by women where no husband was present fell below the poverty level in 2000. Women lagged behind men of any race in terms of income, earning less than seventy-one percent of what men earned in 1999. They ranked thirty-seventh in the nation in terms of women’s median annual earnings.
Health care presented a mixed picture, pointing to a need for intervention to improve women’s health. Participants at a series of statewide forums on women’s health held in 2000 concluded that women needed more access to birth control, mental health services, protection from domestic violence, and HIV care. In one study the state ranked fortieth overall for women’s health care and forty-eighth on women’s life expectancy. As with other indicators, white women generally did better than nonwhites in the rankings. At the beginning of the twenty-first century women in South Carolina were more likely than women in the nation as a whole to have health insurance, although nearly eleven percent of all South Carolina women had none. Women comprised a majority of the state’s elderly population, the age cohort that makes the most demands on an overburdened health care system.
In many respects, life is dramatically better for the South Carolina woman of the twenty-first century than it was for her counterpart in history. Women have far more legal protections than in the past. With passage of the 1972 South Carolina Human Affairs Law and its subsequent amendments, the General Assembly created the Human Affairs Commission to investigate complaints of discrimination in employment, including those based on sex. The South Carolina Fair Housing Law passed in 1989 gave the commission the power to investigate sex-based fair housing complaints. With changes in laws and attitudes, South Carolina’s women should continue to see their educational and economic status improve throughout the century.
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Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Hornsby, Benjamin F., Jr. South Carolina Women: A Timeline. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1995.
McCandless, Amy Thompson. The Past in the Present: Women’s Higher Edu- cation in the Twentieth-Century American South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
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