I first met Ruth Williams Cupp in a Broad Street coffee shop in 1961. I was a young reporter, listening intently while the latest legal and political gossip flowed. Ruth was still relatively new to the practice of law, spending much of her time checking real estate titles.
As it turned out she also was planning her entry into local politics.
In 1962 she became a candidate for the state House of Representatives. In those days a win in the Democratic primary was viewed as virtually assuring election. The Statehouse was overwhelmingly Democratic as was the Charleston Legislation Delegation.
While Charleston County had previously elected a woman to the House she was bowing out.
Ruth, who was unmarried at the time, hit on an attention-getting campaign plan seemingly aimed at diminishing any concerns about family values. She was a member of a large, supportive North Charleston family. A niece was chosen to pose in the campaign baby carriage decked out with the sign: “Vote for My Aunt Ruth.” Aunt Ruth won.
When Ruth took office in 1963 she was the House’s only female. The absence of a woman’s restroom near the legislative chambers prompted the clerk of the House to offer Ruth the use of her private facility behind the podium.
The clerk neglected to tell Ruth the restroom was wired to receive sound from the podium so the clerk wouldn’t miss any of the proceedings. Ruth would later regale friends with the story of her shock when she heard the booming voice of the speaker of the House the first time she used the facility.
Ruth lost her bid for re-election in 1964 for a variety of reasons, including her involvement in Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign. Early the next morning she heard someone call out to her from the walkway of her Bedon’s Alley home. It was Congressman L. Mendel Rivers, a master of constituent service, there to offer her consoling words.
But it was a hard loss. She would later serve as an appointive, part-time associate probate judge for four years, but never sought elective office again. Politics was still a passion, but she worked from the sidelines, including helping others campaign. Unlike many of her former legislative colleagues, she remained “a yellow dog Democrat.”
Her family continued to play a major role in her life. For Ruth travel wasn’t in the cards financially until she established her law practice. She began a tradition of giving her nieces and nephews a trip to New York when they graduated from high school, accompanied, of course, by Aunt Ruth. While the first seven graduates did go to New York, Ruth’s offer expanded to such destinations as England, Spain and Ireland. Her tradition ultimately benefited a total of 18 family members, including great nieces and great nephews.
Ruth’s personal travel was more adventurous. Antarctica, Tibet and India are a few examples. But late in her life her favorite destination was England in general and Oxford in particular. She went to Oxford summer after summer when she was in her 80s, immersing herself in continuing education in general and Shakespeare in particular. She continued to be fascinated with connections to Shakespeare and the law.
Except for a few interruptions, including her marriage at age 45 to Claude Cupp, a retired Army doctor, she continued the practice of law she began in 1954. But her historical research fueled by thousands of title checks took on a new emphasis. She wrote newspaper columns on the history of North Charleston, a book on the history of S.C. women lawyers and another on the history of the Charleston County Bar.
The publication a few years ago of her final book, a history of Charleston’s Florence Crittenton Home, is a testament to her determination. Despite her health problems, including a partial hearing loss, she continued to be one of the chief cheerleaders and fund-raisers for Crittenton, the state’s only refuge for pregnant young women.
She had been involved in social service since she majored in social work at Winthrop College. During those college years she worked summers at the old Charleston Orphan House and later chaired the S.C. Children’s Bureau.
Ruth’s book on the history of the state’s women lawyers notes she was not the first to practice law in Charleston. Two others were admitted to the Bar in the 1930s. But her book relates that the women who preceded her had never attended the annual meeting of the all-male Charleston County Bar.
“I did not know until I arrived that I was the first female to attend, and I did not know until almost 50 years later that a senior member objected to my presence,” she wrote.
She did know before a life-changing accident last October that the Charleston County Bar had voted to honor her with its most prestigious award. She took great pleasure in that knowledge.
In the last 60 years the changing political scene had diminished the influence of lawyers who once dominated the so-called Broad Street Ring just as technology has decreased the need many lawyers once had to be near Charleston’s Four Corners of Law.
After decades of being close to the courthouse, Ruth did eventually relocate her law office to Mount Pleasant. But until she was incapacitated the last nine months of her life she maintained her routine of getting up early and heading to a Broad Street coffee shop to talk law and politics.
Barbara S. Williams is editor emeritus of The Post and Courier.