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346 Harriet Keyserling Political Trailblazer Page Putnam Miller • • • Harriet Hirschfeld Keyserling (1922–2010) entered politics in 1974 at the age of fifty-two when rural South Carolina was beginning to offer more opportunities to women. Keyserling’s life experiences reflect this trend and reveal the transformation of a timid homemaker into a major player in the South Carolina legislature, where she worked tenaciously for the enhancement of education , protection of the environment, promotion of the arts, and improvement of women’s status. One of her special gifts was an astute ability to understand how institutions worked and then to fashion methods of operating within the system to achieve her goals. Her innate facility with written language combined with her skill in analyzing issues served her well as a legislator as she pursued policies that reflected her visions of more efficient government and a more just society. While Keyserling claimed the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina, as her home for almost sixty years, her roots in New York City provided her with a special vantage point for understanding the South and the role of southern women. Born in 1922 into a middle-class Jewish family, Harriet Hirschfeld Keyserling was surrounded in her youth by musicians, artists, and lively political conversations . Her parents were immigrants from Latvia and Lithuania who came as youngsters to America and worked diligently to take advantage of the rich array of opportunities available in their new country. Her father, Isador Hirschfeld, overcame great obstacles to become a prominent dentist and a president of the American Academy of Periodontia. Pauline Steinberg, Harriet’s mother, delivered milk from her sister’s dairy farm in New Jersey to pay for her tuition at Barnard College, from which she graduated in 1908. Although Pauline’s goal was to teach biology or mathematics, the only teaching job she could find was Harriet Keyserling 347 teaching shorthand. But when she was young, her spunk and determination led to a number of adventures; one of the most exceptional was selling canoes in Venice. And it was through canoeing that she met Isador. They married when she was thirty-two years old and soon had two children, Lennie and Harriet.1 Keyserling recalls growing up in a household both comfortable and stimulating . The family’s apartment, a penthouse with a garden, was located near Central Park and afforded ample opportunities for the outdoor activities that the family enjoyed. Keyserling can rarely remember a time when someone was not staying with them—a relative, a struggling artist or musician, or refugees from Hitler’s Europe, primarily dentists. Home life tended to be more interesting for her than the public school for seven thousand girls that she attended. Keyserling claims to have been a mediocre student who spent her time pining for attention from boys.2 While politics were often discussed around the dining room table, Keyserling ’s parents were not political activists. Yet their Jewish faith instilled in them a strong sense of social justice. Keyserling attended the Free Synagogue but felt more attuned to the discussion of ethics than to Bible stories. Her liberal parents did not encourage dogma or blind loyalty to any group.3 Although only 5 percent of women in the United States at this time graduated from college, there was never a question whether or not Keyserling would follow in her mother’s footsteps and attend college. She received a bachelor of arts with honors in economics in 1943 from Barnard College, Columbia University ’s college for women. During two summers, she participated in work camps cosponsored by Harvard’s American Friends Service Committee and International Student Service and gained new insights that complemented her academic study of industrial relations. While a college student she renewed a friendship with Herbert Keyserling, a family friend who was at the time pursuing his medical studies and was a resident at a New York hospital. Harriet’s family had visited Herbert’s family home in Beaufort, South Carolina, a decade earlier, and the Keyserlings often visited New York. In 1942 Herbert and Harriet became reacquainted as adults. World War II, however, interrupted their courtship when Herbert became a battalion surgeon stationed in the South Pacific. They married in 1944. Prior to their marriage, Keyserling worked in management for the Eagle Pencil Company and at the time of her engagement had just been offered a promotion . In reminiscing about her early adulthood, she noted that middle- and upper-class women of her generation were...


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