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409 Jean Hoefer Toal The Rise of Women in the Legal Profession W. Lewis Burke and Bakari T. Sellers • • • On January 28, 1988, an “it’s a girl” sign appeared on one of the ornate granite columns of the Supreme Court building in Columbia, South Carolina. The banner, festooned with pink ribbon, announced the arrival of the first woman on the Supreme Court of South Carolina—Jean Hoefer Toal (1943– )—destined to become the court’s first female chief justice as well.1 On that same day Carol Connor achieved another South Carolina first when she was elected the state’s first female circuit judge. The newspapers were full of stories and images of the triumphant Toal. There was one photo of Toal and Connor celebrating together on the balcony of the state house of representatives.2 This day of triumph for women lawyers in South Carolina came after considerable striving. The story of Jean Hoefer Toal’s election to the supreme court and her later ascension as its first female chief justice includes many elements of the classic American saga of individuals overcoming great obstacles to achieve great things. Her great-grandparents were part of the nineteenthcentury European migration to America. The Civil War would be the direct cause of one of her ancestors moving to the state. These and other factors are critical components of her story. But the long, interrelated history of the struggle for civil rights for women and African Americans in the nation and the state provides the main historical narrative within which the arrival of this “girl” on South Carolina’s high court is best understood. Only after these two movements brought considerable change to the United States and to South Carolina was Toal’s achievement possible. Jean Toal’s climb to the chief justice’s chair is remarkable when one considers how restricted women’s rights had been in South Carolina throughout much of Jean Hoefer Toal Photo by Erik Campos. Courtesy of the South Carolina Judicial Department. Jean Hoefer Toal 411 its history. Obviously white women enjoyed many rights and privileges in sharp contrast to African American women in a slave state, yet, in the nineteenth century, white women had limited property rights and essentially no “political” rights. After Reconstruction-era amendments ended slavery and granted black men full rights of citizenship including the right to vote, women—white and black—remained unequal in the eyes of the law and could neither vote nor run for office nor enter contracts, become lawyers or serve on juries.3 The twentieth century would bring change, however. The woman suffrage movement was on the rise across the country and had support among South Carolina women, even though it faced its greatest obstacles in the South. African American men were simultaneously experiencing a dramatic decline in their rights. In South Carolina African American men’s right to the vote had been wrested away by 1900 through a combination of lying, cheating, stealing, and murder, much of it justified by the perpetrators as necessary for the protection of white women against black male presumption.4 The white male leadership’s response to woman suffrage reveals this complex relationship between the rights of women and African Americans. Congress had approved the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote on June 4, 1919, and sent it to the states for ratification, but the South Carolina General Assembly refused to approve it.5 Many argued that a vote for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment would have signified approval of the Fifteenth Amendment and the right of the federal government to determine voting rights within the states. On March 7, 1921, nearly seven months after the amendment was ratified by the required number of states, the South Carolina legislature begrudgingly enacted a statute granting women the right to vote in the state.6 While the right to vote theoretically applied to all women, the Nineteenth Amendment’s promise proved to be just as false for black women in South Carolina as the Fifteenth Amendment’s had been for black men. When the naacp organized a group of well-educated black women to register to vote in the state’s capital city in 1920, virtually all of them were prevented from doing so and humiliated in the process.7 Even for white women, the Nineteenth Amendment did not mean equality before the law. The all-white, all-male legislature of South Carolina immediately exempted women from jury service—making it clear...


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