SC League of Women Voters

The League of Women Voters of South Carolina helped with voter registration during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Provided/Ernest F. Hollings Political Collections, University of South Carolina​

A century ago on Monday, women across the country won the right to vote but South Carolina did not ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for another 50 years in a sign of how the state has been slow to recognize women's rights, advocates say.

Soon after the amendment passed, South Carolina’s southern Democrat-dominated legislature pushed back. Women voted in South Carolina after 1920, but a new law prevented them from serving on juries. The ban lasted for another four decades.

“They were quite nervous about what women would do,” said Laura Woliver, a retired political science professor at the University of South Carolina. 

Struggles remain for women in South Carolina.

South Carolina is one of the 13 states that have not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment that would prohibit all discrimination based on gender needs to win passage in one more state to become part of the Constitution. Also, women remain underrepresented in the Statehouse.

"Getting the right to vote was the beginning, not the end," said Lynn Teague, the League of Women's Voters lobbyist.

The 19th Amendment was a game changer for the elections.

Voter turnout was extremely low when the amendment passed in 1919, Woliver said. Adding women to the voter population could then more easily sway races and legislation.

"Women need to stick together to get things done," said Keller Barron, a longtime activist with the League of Women Voters.

South Carolina is known for having a role in the suffragist movement.

Eulalie Salley funded the cause by becoming one of the state's first women real estate agents in Aiken.

When former Gov. Robert McNair ratified the 19th Amendment in 1969, Salley, who was then 85, was at his side when she said, “Well, boys, I’ve waited 50 years to tell you what I think about you for taking so long to pass this.”

Even though the S.C. Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment in 1969, it was not formally added to the state law books for another four years.

Barron said she was at the Statehouse looking into state codes in 1973 and did not see that South Carolina ratified the amendment.

She said she called then-Gov. John West’s office, which said the state had never confirmed ratification with the Secretary of State or the House Speaker. The error was fixed.

Teague said she knows some South Carolinians still don’t believe women should have voting rights. Teague said people told her when she started at the Statehouse that women didn’t belong in government. 

“Obviously, I’m not following their instructions,” she said. “This is an ongoing battle. I look forward to the day when there are more women in the legislature.”

South Carolina Legislature includes 27 women who account for about 16 percent of all lawmakers. The national average is 27 percent.

Women should use their right to vote now to address other human rights issues, Barron said.

They include the gender pay gap, clean water and human trafficking, she said.

“Women, in mass, can make a difference,” Barron said.

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