Review: South Carolina Women
Marjorie Julian Spruill, Valinda W. Littlefield, and Joan Marie Johnson, eds. South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times. Volume 3. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2012. xx + 460 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8203-4215-3.
My hat is off to the editors and authors of South Carolina Women. They have done an enormous service to anyone who is interested in South Carolina history, women’s history, and southern history by compiling telling stories of a group of fascinating women.
Volume 3 of South Carolina Women includes biographical profiles about 27 prominent South Carolina women. The book is organized in roughly chronological order, with the earliest profile from the 1930s. Several of the women included are still alive and were interviewed for this volume.
Taken as a whole, South Carolina Women tells the story of women’s history in the twentieth century. The women profiled were teachers, librarians, nurses, and public health workers. They were mothers, wives, widows, daughters, and spinsters. They were elected officials, business owners, midwives, and academics. They came from a variety of backgrounds: African American and white; working class, middle class, poor, and society women. In addition, many were political and social activists, engaging issues related to civil rights, labor, farming, and women’s rights. As the volume moves forward in time, we see more women in public life, punctuated by Jean Toal’s election as the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court and Mary Gordon Ellis becoming the first woman elected to the South Carolina Senate.
The volume also includes women whose paths were unconventional, including Louise Smith, a NASCAR driver; Julie and Alice Delk, who built ships at the Charleston Navy Yard in World War II; and Mary Jane Manigault, who pioneered the art and craft of sea grass basket weaving.
While the book features diverse women, the chapters reveal how these women both reflected broader national trends and also operated within a southern culture marked by conservatism, patriarchy, and racism. Several authors noted that the women they profiled accommodated these biases by dressing as a “proper” South Carolina woman should. By wearing dresses and hats and gloves, their messages were more likely to have an impact than if they dressed less traditionally. But despite the image of domesticity, the message of reformers often had a steely resolve. Black children in the state were educated in poorly constructed and meanly supplied schools. Yet teachers in these schools instilled a desire for independence, self-respect, pride, and self-improvement—topics that the white power structure would not have embraced.
This book is an excellent resource for scholars and students of southern and South Carolina history and politics, American studies, African-American studies, and women’s studies. Scholars interested in southern religion will appreciate the infusions of faith into these accounts—many of them having a Protestant flavor, but we also learn about Jean Toal’s Catholicism and Harriet Keyserling’s Judaism. Moreover, the book is written in accessible prose and includes a number of photographs of these remarkable women. Portions of the book would be useful for undergraduate courses, and it will be an excellent resource for libraries.
In short, I commend the authors and editors for making a valuable contribution by documenting the lives and stories of these important women.