Celebrating the lives of South Carolina women
By Peggy Binette, email@example.com, 803-777-7704
Seven years ago three historians met around a breakfast table to sketch out a multi-volume book series on South Carolina women. That anthology, which tells the rich history, stories and contributions of women from the Native American Queen “Lady of Cofitachequi,” who reigned in the 1500s, to S.C. Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, is now complete.
A book talk and signing to celebrate the release of the final volume of “South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times,” edited by University of South Carolina historians Marjorie Spruill and Valinda Littlefield and Joan Marie Johnson of Northeastern Illinois University, will take place at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, in the University of South Carolina’s Hollings Library. The event is free and open to the public.
“It’s wonderful to see this project come to fruition,” Spruill says. “We say ‘lives and times’ in the title for a reason. People enjoy biography, and these are biographical essays. But they are more than that. In the essays these women are not presented as isolated people. We want readers to understand the impact of society on them and the impact they had on society. Their contributions extend beyond South Carolina to the region and nation.”
Spruill and Littlefield, professors in the College of Arts and Sciences, will discuss the book project and many of the personal stories of women, some famous and some obscure, whose indelible legacy has forever shaped the Palmetto State.
Some of those South Carolina women will be in attendance, including Toal; Alice Delk Ray, who with her sister worked in the Charleston Naval Yard during World War II as welders; Fannie Phelps Adams, an African-American educator and activist who confronted the Jim Crow system and helped to pave the way for the civil rights movement; and Victoria Eslinger, Keller Barron and Tootsie Holland, who helped usher in modern day women’s rights.
A book signing and reception will follow the talk. Copies of the books, published by University of Georgia Press, will be available for sale.
The first volume of “South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times” was released in June 2009 at a public symposium that drew hundreds of women and scholars from throughout the Southeast.
An immediate success, the book series, written for a general audience, scholars and K-12 teachers, has had a tremendous impact. Not only has it led to the revision of South Carolina’s social studies standards to reflect more fully the contributions of women, but it was a catalyst for the publishing of a series of similar books about the lives and times of southern women in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and Arkansas.
“Teachers are using the essays to create lesson plans to tell the stories of these women. They love the individual stories. Once they start reading, they’re hooked,” Littlefield says. “It’s gratifying to know that school teachers are using these materials and that the state’s social studies standards have been updated as a result.”
Littlefield says they’re looking into a possible digital project that would give greater access of information to schools.
“There are many more stories just as rich and important as the ones in the series, and a digital resource would give greater access of information to schools,” Littlefield says.
Choosing which stories to tell when there were endless possibilities was very difficult, Spruill says. In part decisions depended upon finding authors able to tell the stories. But Spruill says they found that there were scholars all over the world working on South Carolina women. Among the women and men whose work is featured in the volumes are writers from the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Guatemala as well as all part of the United States. Much of the research was done in USC libraries including the South Caroliniana and the South Carolina Political Collections.
Ultimately, the volumes comprise 47 essays and 1,082 pages.
“It wasn’t easy. We wanted to represent all of the times in South Carolina history, from first encounters between Europeans and Native Americans to the present. We didn’t want to include just famous and well-known women,” Spruill says. “Some were slave women just known by their first names. Others were wives of plantation overseers, known only by their last names. There are the women in the Neves family from Mush Creek who wrote letters to the men in their family during the Civil War. These were not all highly educated women like Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose story is also told. These barely literate women of the Neves family provide a different understanding of experience during the Civil War.”
Spruill says her mother, Edna Spruill, who is 91, plans to attend the Dec. 6 event. Her favorite story is about Wil Lou Gray, a pioneer in adult education who founded opportunity schools in South Carolina, and Julia Mood Peterkin, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Scarlett Sister Mary,” which in part was written in a Gullah dialect, and banned by some institutions.
Littlefield says while she has many favorite stories, the one she wrote about Ruby Forsythe and Fannie Phelps Adams, African- American school teachers in the Jim Crow era, is deeply personal.
“These were two women who by all measure had little to nothing. They were not born into wealth and didn’t have access to education and resources,” Littlefield said. “You think about what they had to do in a time that said they couldn’t do it. But they molded a future generation for voting and desegregation. They helped students to understand that they were important and intelligent and that there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do. She helped them see that the sky is the limit and provided the tools needed to confront Jim Crow.”
The book celebration Dec. 6 is sponsored by USC’s College of Arts and Sciences and its Department of History and History Center, African American Studies Program, Women’s and Gender Studies Program, Institute for Southern Studies; University Libraries’ South Carolina Political Collections and South Caroliniana Library; and the University of Georgia Press.
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