South Carolina and the 19th Amendment

State of South Carolina in gray – indicating it was not one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. Courtesy Megan Springate.
State of South Carolina in gray – indicating it was not one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. CC0

Women fought for the right to vote since the mid-1800s. They marched, protested, lobbied, and even went to jail. By the 1870s, women pressured Congress to vote on an amendment that would give them suffrage rights. This amendment became known as the 19th Amendment.

After decades of arguments for and against women's suffrage, Congress finally voted in favor of the 19th Amendment in 1919. This is called ratification. After Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of it for it to become law.

On January 28, 1920, South Carolina voted to reject the 19th Amendment. But by August of 1920, 36 states approved the Amendment, making women’s suffrage legal all across the country – even in South Carolina.

On July 1, 1969, South Carolina showed its support for women’s suffrage by officially ratifying the 19th Amendment.

south carolina state flag
South Carolina state flag. CC0

Women in South Carolina

South Carolina was home to Indigenous women, African American women, immigrant women descended from European colonizers. When Spanish colonizers explored the southeastern US in the 1500s, they came across an Indigenous chiefdom called Cofitachequi. One of the most wealthy and powerful in the region, the kingdom was led by the Lady of Cofitachequi. While chiefs were typically male, many Indigenous tribes traced a child’s lineage through the mother. Women were also in charge of agricultural production and oversaw the household.

Many Indigenous people were eventually killed by European diseases. Others were forcibly removed from the land by European colonizers. Women of European descent began to occupy the landscape in large numbers. Some, like Mary Boykin Chesnut, belonged to wealthy white families. As a teenager, she married one of the largest landowners and enslavers in the state. She and her husband supported South Carolina’ secession from the Union. Chesnut wrote about her experience living through the Civil War.

Other white women were daring enough to speak out against the horrors of slavery, including the Grimke sisters. Sarah and Angela were born in Charleston to a wealthy family. Their father, a Supreme Court judge in South Carolina, was also an enslaver. He held hundreds of men, women, and children in bondage. But the Grimke sisters believed this was wrong. They spoke out against slavery and became some of the first female abolitionists in America. They also advocated for voting rights for women.

African American women often did not share the same privileges as Chesnut and the Grimke sisters. Not only were enslaved women unable to profit from their own labor, many were unable to read or write. South Carolina passed anti-literacy laws, making it illegal to teach enslaved people how to read and write. But with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Union troops took control of the eastern coast of South Carolina. Federal troops recruited women like Charlotte Forten Grimke to teach newly freed people. She and others established a system of public schools on the islands.

While women like Grimke made a difference in the lives of newly freed people, Charleston society was still far from equal even by the mid-1900s. Septima Clark, a teacher and civil rights activist, wanted to change this. Clark was particularly upset by the voting system in the South. Black women and black men had the right to vote, but were often kept from the voting polls by literacy tests. Because their parents and grandparents were enslaved, some African American adults did not learn to read or write. As a result, literacy tests prevented many black citizens from voting, even in the 1950s and 1960s.

Clark designed educational programs to teach African American community members how to read and write. She thought this was important in order to vote and gain other rights. Her idea for “citizen education” became the cornerstone of the Civil Right Movement.

Women like Charlotte Grimke and Septima Clark faced discrimination due to their gender and skin color, yet they persisted. Their resiliency and engagement in civic life is an important lesson for women and men today.

Last updated: September 18, 2018