When women in the 1st Congressional District went to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballots, chances are that few gave a thought to the fact that women have had the right to vote for less than a century.
Fewer still probably know that it was a Charlestonian who helped win that right.
The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was passed when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it in August 1920. The deciding vote came from a young legislator named Harry Burn, who changed his vote the day after having dinner with Charleston native Anita Pollitzer.
Pollitzer, who grew up on Pitt Street, was a leader in the National Woman’s Party. She was born in 1894, a daughter of Gustave and Clara Guinzburg Pollitzer and younger sister of Carrie, Mabel and Richard.
“Once I started reading their papers in the South Carolina Historical Society, I realized what an absolutely fascinating family they were,” said Amy McCandless, dean of the Graduate School of the College of Charleston who has taught and written extensively on women’s history.
“To me, the most fascinating thing is to try to explain how these women, who had a very traditional education, in a very conservative society, managed to be what I like to call ‘brazen belles.’ How they were able to do quite extraordinary things for the time and place, move beyond the restrictions of their society,” she said. “And I think the Pollitzers are such fascinating examples of that.”
While her sisters also were involved community activists, Anita was the best-known of the three, McCandless said. Carrie was instrumental in making the College of Charleston a coeducational institution, while Mabel was a high school biology teacher and ecologist. Both were involved in the National Woman’s Party and women’s rights in Charleston as well.
“One reason we know more about Anita than the others is that the National Woman’s Party was political and got newspaper coverage,” she said.
Anita Pollitzer graduated from the School of Practical Arts at the Teachers College at Columbia University in 1916. While there, she was a good friend of painter Georgia O’Keeffe and studied with photographer Alfred Stieglitz. She introduced Stieglitz to O’Keeffe, and the two later married.
She moved to Washington, D.C., after graduation from college to work for the National Woman’s Party, where she was a close friend of founder Alice Paul.
“Being from Charleston is very important to her, yet she lived most of her adult life away from Charleston,” McCandless said.
In a letter of reference about her, according to the Anita Pollitzer Papers at the University of South Carolina Library, Paul wrote, “Miss Pollitzer was ... one of the most successful organizers that we ever had. She has a great deal of initiative, enthusiasm, and personal charm. She was particularly good in press work, interviewing, money raising and speaking. She has a sunny disposition and is easy to work with. She makes friends easily and does not antagonize. She is never-tiring in her work, full of energy, and very painstaking. She has unusual courage, independence of thought, and intelligence. She is very loyal to those she works for and with. She has a high sense of honor.”
Pollitzer traveled across the country, speaking, organizing rallies and picketing.
“The thing I love, and I think is why they were able to be successful when some people were not, is how they took the typical stereotype of a Southerner, which we think of as the lady on a pedestal, and they worked with, around and against this imagery,” McCandless said. “It’s a very political understanding of Southern customs and mores and how you worked with, around and against them to achieve change. And I think that’s a special art, a special talent.”
Pollitzer, who also earned a master’s degree in international law from Columbia University, was married in 1928 to freelance press agent Elie Charlier Edson, who encouraged her in her career. She did not take his name.
Pollitzer continued her career with the party after women gained the right to vote. She served as national secretary, national congressional secretary, congressional committee vice chairman and national vice chairman. She succeeded Paul as national chairman, serving 1945-49, and was the honorary national chair until her death in 1975.
She testified about equal rights before congressional committees and worked nationwide to bring the Equal Rights Amendment to the Senate calendar in 1938.
She was influential in the passage of the National Fair Labor Standards Act and joined with Paul to form the World Woman’s Party. They also were active in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.
“Even though she’s traveling all over and based in D.C. or New York, she always refers to herself as from South Carolina,” McCandless said.
When she died in 1975, an obituary in The New York Times called Pollitzer a “pioneer fighter for equal rights for women.”
“I think she was ultimately an optimist who believed that if you worked hard, you could accomplish things,” McCandless said. “She believed people were good. They just needed to find out what was just and they would do it.”
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.