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35 Mary Gordon Ellis The Politics of Race and Gender from Schoolhouse to Statehouse Carol Sears Botsch • • • In March 1995, more than sixty years after their mother’s life was cut short by cancer, Mary Gordon Ellis’s three children joined with members of the South Carolina Senate to honor the memory of the state’s first woman senator. A controversial figure in the early 1900s who fought to provide educational opportunities for African American as well as white children, Ellis (1890–1934) had been virtually forgotten. But by the 1990s, both South Carolina and the nation had changed. The schoolhouse doors had opened to children of all races, although many inequities remained. Women were beginning to run for office and in some cases were winning. Politicians were courting the female vote. It was a time of progress, and officeholders were seeking opportunities to celebrate women in politics. Ellis’s children had fought for years to have their mother recognized for her accomplishments but now they had the support of the South Carolina Governor’s Commission on Women, headed by Mary Baskin Waters. Their combined efforts bore fruit in 1995 when her portrait was unveiled in the state senate chambers. Now an oil painting of Ellis, who died in her early forties, would join those of other South Carolina notables in the senate portrait gallery at the statehouse—the first portrait of a woman to be hung there. The state and its citizens would finally recognize the accomplishments of this pioneer who was in so many ways far ahead of her time. Ellis’s short life is even more remarkable when one considers that South Carolina’s women had only had the right to vote for a few years in 1924 when she ran for office. Although some southern women campaigned for suffrage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant culture in the South Mary Gordon Ellis Courtesy of Margaret E. Taylor. Mary Gordon Ellis 37 did not encourage women to be politically active. South Carolina did not vote to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 and only formally ratified it in 1969. A few American women had been elected to state level office as early as the 1890s. But these women lived in the western states of Utah and Colorado, and came from a very different culture.1 As one historian noted, the South was a region that “had adopted a more rigid definition of the role of women than any other part of the country and had elevated that definition to the position of a myth.”2 Southern women were supposed to be gentle, docile, and submissive to male authority. For most, marriage was their career. The home was their castle, at least in theory, but they were not supposed to play any significant political role in life outside the home. The reality, however, was that women had begun to assert themselves politically through women’s clubs, the suffrage movement, and other social reforms, but political officeholding still seemed off limits to women.3 In the early years of the twentieth century, few women ran for office and few were elected. In 1922 Kate Vixon Wofford knocked down South Carolina’s “No women allowed” sign with her election as superintendent of education in Laurens County. Two years later Mary Gordon Ellis was elected to the state senate, although only a few women followed her into state level office during the remainder of the twentieth century. Although some will remember Ellis because she was the state’s first woman senator, she merits recognition for her work as an early civil rights activist. In the South of the 1920s, there were some well-meaning women and men, both black and white, who sought to improve relations between the races in a time of increasing racial tension.4 In 1919 religious moderates joined together to form the South Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Their goal was not to end segregation or to change the social order in which blacks ranked below whites.5 But this group and others like it sought better education, housing, and living conditions for African Americans in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South.6 Ellis, a small-town woman, was not herself involved with any such formal organization, but she was a determined individual who recognized a wrong and sought to right it, regardless of the opposition she faced. The future state senator was born on April 21...


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