The enfranchisement of women was first publicly discussed during the Reconstruction era in South Carolina. During the 1868 State Constitutional Convention, William Whipper, a black Republican politician, made the first official move to enfranchise women in the state of South Carolina. Whipper suggested the word “male” be stricken from constitutional suffrage requirements. However, the Convention decided against his suggestion. In the spring of 1869, Lottie Rollin, a black woman born free in Antebellum Charleston and the sister-in-law of Whipper, made a speech on the floor of the South Carolina state legislature on behalf of the judiciary committee which made a motion to enfranchise women. The motion was once again denied. Over the next several years Rollin, Whipper, and other Republican politicians—men and women, black and white—began a small suffrage movement.
In December 1870, a women’s rights convention held in Columbia received a warm letter of support from Governor R. K. Scott. Rollin’s speech at this convention was later recorded in History of Woman Suffrage, the influential chronical of the suffrage movement in the United States compiled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. After this convention, the nascent movement chose to align itself with the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). In their first official meeting, held in January of 1871, letters from Governor Scott and national suffrage leader Lucy Stone were read in support of this fledgling organization. In 1872, the General Assembly endorsed a petition of the AWSA to grant women political rights but adjourned before taking any specific action. That fall, Rollin served as the sole representative for the state of South Carolina at the annual meeting of the AWSA in St Louis.
On March 13, 1872, Whipper and other suffrage allies in the Republican party made one final attempt to pass universal suffrage at the state level. A joint committee of the state House and Senate, which included Whipper and fellow black Republican (and former Lieutenant Governor) Alonzo Ransier, recommended an amendment to the state constitution which would allow that “every person, male or female, possessed of the necessary qualifications, should be entitled to vote.” The amendment was rejected by the state legislature. After this rejection the question of women’s enfranchisement was largely dropped in public forums in South Carolina until the 1880s. By then black women and men were firmly excluded from joining the movement which they had founded in this state.
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 white 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.
Yarbrough, Cappy. “’The Mark they Had in Sight’: Black Women, Suffrage, and Politics in Reconstruction South Carolina.” Master’s thesis, College of Charleston, 2020.