Celebrate National Women’s History Month with a look back at events that shaped women’s roles in our community. Some moments moved us forward, others bring the glass ceiling into relief. In all we meet women who have made strides in expanding the role of women in our community.
In March we like to honor women who have made advances in politics, their careers, or in improving social welfare for others. Many women from Columbia have made notable contributions in these areas. As we scan the photographic archives in the Walker Local and Family History Center we continue to discover notable moments that impacted women in our community. Let’s take a look at some of these events and meet the women that made a difference.
January 13, 1959
In 1950, Martha T. Fitzgerald of Columbia was the first woman to run and be elected to serve a full term in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Previous female Representatives had been given honorary seats when their husbands died in office, but did not win elections nor were they expected to stay in office once their terms ended. Fitzgerald however ran on her own merit. She was often the only woman in the room and she paved the way for others to follow.
On January 13, 1959, Rep. Fitzgerald would finally have some company. On that day two other women, Ruby G. Wesson and Virginia Gourdin, were sworn in to office. Picture below are Wesson, a freshman member from Spartanburg, Fitzgerald the veteran member from Richland County, and Gourdin a freshman member from Charleston. The hat rack behind them was about to get a little more colorful and the House chamber a little more in touch with issues affecting women.
Fitzgerald, in dainty hat and white gloves, even ran for Congress in 1962. However, she was defeated in the Democratic primary, ironically by another less-qualified woman who was given the nomination to fill her late husband’s remaining term. Only one woman from South Carolina has since been elected to serve a full term in the U.S. House of Representatives (Liz Patterson, elected in 1986).
September 11, 1963
In 1963 three African American students enrolled at the University of South Carolina, becoming the first to do so since Reconstruction. Henrie Montieth was one of those students, and was the first black woman to enter the state’s flagship University. Montieth was raised in Columbia and was the niece of civil rights trailblazer Modjeska Simkins. Montieth was forced to sue the University to gain admission. She was represented by notable civil rights lawyer (and later federal judge) Matthew Perry.
On September 11, 1963 Montieth, along with Robert G. Anderson and James L. Solomon registered for class at the University of South Carolina. Montieth was the first African American woman to graduate in 1967 and would go on to earn a PhD in biochemistry, proving herself to be a trailblazer in several ways.
March 1, 1967
South Carolina was the second to last state to allow women to serve on juries. Women with law degrees, like Columbian Sarah Leverette, below right, and others with the League of Women Voters helped force the issue on a reluctant South Carolina General Assembly. A lack of women’s restrooms in courthouses was provided as one excuse for not permitting women to serve.
Women’s groups did not give up. The topic of women on juries was discussed during a Columbia meeting of the S.C. Council for the Common Good. In fact, women’s social groups often provided a haven for women to discuss issues regarding women’s rights.
The issue of female jurors found a powerful supporter in Thomasine Mason of Summerton, who was the second woman elected to serve in the South Carolina Senate. With Mason’s help, South Carolina women were finally allowed to serve on juries on March 1, 1967.
May 17, 1972
In March, 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment was ratified by the U.S. Senate as an amendment to the United States Constitution preventing discrimination on the basis of sex. It was then presented to state legislatures for ratification. A 38-state majority was required for the ERA to become the 27th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
When the ERA was presented to the South Carolina Senate it was at first ratified, but before being signed it was reexamined before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 17, 1972. On that day numerous proponents of the amendment spoke at the State House, along with a small contingent of 4 men and 8 women opposed to the amendment. In the end, South Carolina did not ratify the ERA that year. It remains unratified today.
As local women, one by one, have tried something new, pushed the envelope, or pressed on despite obstacles, our community has become a better place for everyone. We still have work to do, so let’s keep up the momentum of those who have gone before.