100 years of suffrage: From ERA to new millennium
SC women overcome obstacles, break down barriers to progress
By Page Ivey, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3085
As the era of the civil rights movement gave way to the 1970s, the women’s movement took up a new banner that went beyond voting rights — the Equal Rights Amendment.
South Carolina finally joined other states in approving the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in 1969 — fully 50 years after the amendment was first approved by Congress. And South Carolina women, who had been practicing law since before 1920, could finally serve on a jury after 1965.
In 1971, University of South Carolina law student Victoria Eslinger sought to break down another barrier to women: serving as a student page in the South Carolina Senate. Eslinger sued the clerk of the Senate when she was denied a position as a legislative page because of her gender. For her attorney, she sought the counsel of Jean Toal, a recent UofSC law school graduate, who, in turn, sought advice on the case from a young Columbia University law professor named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Eslinger prevailed in her lawsuit but was already out of law school by the time women were allowed to serve as pages in the Senate. But she had also taken on other issues during her time as a student at UofSC, starting a hotline to connect women with health services including abortion, which was not legally available in South Carolina at the time.
1972: Pivotal year
On the national stage, 1972 was a significant year for women’s rights with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments, which prohibits sex discrimination in all aspects of education programs that receive federal support. Title IX is largely credited with opening up athletics opportunities for high school and college students as well as requiring colleges to report and work to prevent sexual assault on campus.
In South Carolina in 1972, Edna Smith Primus became the first African American woman to graduate from the UofSC School of Law.
Primus, who came from a family of sharecroppers in the South Carolina Lowcountry, had earned her bachelor’s degree from UofSC six years earlier. After completing her law degree, she began working with the South Carolina Council on Human Rights and the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union as part of her goal to serve the poor.
But just a few years after graduation, Primus faced a public reprimand for soliciting clients for personal gain after talking with women whose obstetrician had refused to deliver babies for them unless they agreed to be sterilized. The obstetrician took issue with the women continuing to have children while also being on welfare.
Primus told one woman that the ACLU would represent her free of charge if she wanted to sue the doctor, who in turn complained to the South Carolina bar that Primus was violating professional ethics by soliciting clients.
“We were scarce then, black women lawyers,” Primus told The State newspaper years later. “A public reprimand splashed all over the papers, that was totally demoralizing.”
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the reprimand in 1978, ruling that advocacy groups, such as the ACLU, had a First Amendment right to advance their political agendas through litigation. The case is still taught in law schools today in professional responsibility courses.
Primus went on to work in civil rights and social justice law for decades. She died in 2019 at the age of 75.
After I graduated from college and really got out into the working world, I realized that I was a very powerless person and that part of it was due to my sex.
Malissa Burnette, ’71 sociology and ’77 law, in a 1977 oral history interview
Also in 1972, the U.S. Senate approved the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.
A few South Carolina women emerged as leaders of this second wave of feminism, focusing not just on getting the ERA ratified, but on moving equality forward on many fronts.
Working through the League of Women Voters and the newly formed South Carolina chapter of the National Organization for Women, these women took on battles that opened up new prospects for women.
The early days of the ERA were filled with optimism as even conservative Republican U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina supported the amendment and told ERA proponents at home he wanted his daughters to have the same opportunities as his sons, UofSC history professor Marjorie Spruill wrote in an essay for the book South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, which she co-edited with fellow UofSC history professor Valinda Littlefield and historian Joan Marie Johnson.
Soon after the ERA was approved by Congress, Carolyn Frederick — one of the few women in the state Legislature and a Republican from Greenville — introduced the ratification resolution in the South Carolina House of Representatives.
“Even in this state, the House actually approved it by a unanimous voice vote,” Spruill says. “But then Sen. Marion Gressette, who was the most powerful senator, blocked it.”
The anti-feminist movement, led nationally by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, began growing in numbers and clout. Schlafly and others argued that the ERA would remove legal protections for women who chose to be homemakers rather than work outside jobs. Her message resonated with conservative Southern women, particularly those who saw the ERA as supporting abortion rights and challenging religious beliefs that husbands were the head of the household.
According to Spruill’s essay, a 1976 study on the status of homemakers in South Carolina, co-authored by Eslinger, showed that “South Carolina women, particularly those who have chosen to be full-time homemakers, are not in fact the ‘privileged suitors’ referred to by the courts” and that wives had “no enforceable interest in the family income during marriage” and no protection from physical abuse in a marriage. (Marital rape was not a crime in South Carolina until 1991.) The study also showed that divorced women were unlikely to get alimony or sufficient child support — two points of “privilege” cited by anti-feminists in seeking to defeat the ERA.
At the same time U.S. women were stumping for equal rights, the United Nations designated 1975 as International Women’s Year, organizing a conference in Mexico City. Two years later, the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year organized a U.S. version held in Houston. It brought together 2,000 delegates from across the U.S. as well as tens of thousands of observers to advocate for women’s issues and passage of the ERA. UofSC alumna and historian Constance Ashton Myers was the principal investigator on a research project that conducted oral histories at the national conference and at the preceding state conference in South Carolina. That collection is part of the Oral History Department at UofSC, and Spruill and the university’s oral historian Andrea L’Hommedieu are working to transcribe and make those interviews available online.
The interviews reveal the hopes and aspirations of women and men attending both the state and national conferences, including those opposed to the ERA.
“Women's voices have been underrepresented in history, so preserving these stories not only validates women's experiences and amplifies the fight for equality, but as importantly the stories now exist as primary research material for those wanting to write about women's achievements and struggles for equality,” L’Hommedieu says.
Among the 1977 interviews is one with UofSC alumna Malissa Burnette, ’71 sociology and ’77 law. Burnette, who was a resource person for a conference workshop on rape and battered women, was also president of the Columbia chapter of NOW and coordinated ERA ratification efforts for South Carolina’s 2nd congressional district.
“After I graduated from college and really got out into the working world, I realized that I was a very powerless person and that part of it was due to my sex,” Burnette says in the interview. “And I just felt helpless, and I wondered what I could do about it. And the first thing I did was to go to law school, but even having graduated from law school now, I see that is not enough, that we’re going to have to work through the legislatures to ensure that women have equality.”
The following year, Nancy Stevenson became the first woman elected to statewide office in South Carolina when she won the race for lieutenant governor. Burnette was Stevenson’s chief of staff.
1980s: Decade of progress
Despite the failure of the ERA to pass by its extended deadline of 1982, women continued to make advances in government and politics.
In 1986, Liz Patterson was elected to the first of her three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two years later, Columbia native, UofSC law school graduate and long-time state lawmaker Jean Toal became the first woman to serve as a justice on the South Carolina Supreme Court. Twelve years later, she became the court’s first female chief justice — a position she held until her retirement in 2015.
And during the 1980s, Columbia native Harriet Hancock, who was raising three children on her own after her husband died, decided to enroll in the University of South Carolina as an undergraduate alongside her son, Greg, who came out as gay in 1981.
Hancock knew she wanted to work for a world that would accept her son and started a local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). After finishing her undergraduate degree, Hancock went on to UofSC’s law school then began a career that focused on family law.
“When I went into private practice, I just did a little bit of everything and you kind of find your niche and mine happened to be family law,” Hancock says in an oral history interview conducted by L’Hommedieu in April 2019. “That did me very well because by that time, I had already started … to be involved involved in the LGBT civil rights movement. And I could work through my legal experience to help people because they couldn’t get married, know how to protect themselves in relationships by doing wills and health care powers of attorney, so I really had a lot of LGBT clients in my practice and a lot of them I represented for no fee. Just because I felt their need and knew that it was something that I wanted to do.”
Just three years after graduating from law school, Hancock, who also worked with the Columbia Community Relations Council on anti-discrimination measures, received the 1991 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year Award from the South Carolina Bar.
1990s: Storming the Citadel
In the 1990s, South Carolina saw the second woman elected to statewide office when Barbara Nielsen served two terms as superintendent of education. She was followed by Inez Tenenbaum, who also served two terms as education chief.
Also in the 1990s, The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets got its first female members after a protracted court battle waged by Shannon Faulkner of Powdersville, South Carolina, whose attorney Suzanne Coe is a UofSC law school graduate.
Outside of politics, UofSC medical school graduate Lilly Stern Filler helped start a obstetrics and gynecology practice with all female doctors. The Women Physicians Associates remains in existence today at Prisma’s Richland Hospital. Filler went on to chair the obstetrics department at the hospital and served on the board of Planned Parenthood of South Carolina. In 2002, she was elected the first female chief of staff at the hospital, which was then known as Palmetto Health Richland. Filler was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and in 2001 she led the committee that established the South Carolina Holocaust Memorial.
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