CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- March 1 marks the start of Women’s History Month, so we put together a list of some influential ladies born in South Carolina.
From pioneers in medicine to suffragettes to actresses, these women paved the way for others and are recognized for their impacts locally, nationally, and across the globe.
Kimberley Clarice Aiken
The Columbia native was crowned Miss America in 1994 and used her platform to draw attention to the issue of homelessness. She founded HERO, the Homeless Education and Resource Center, which offers assistance to agencies that provide aid to homeless people.
Anna DeCosta Banks
This Charleston native is a pioneer in the nursing profession having served as the first head nurse at the Hospital and Training School for Nurses, a segregated institution for training Black nurses. A wing at the Medical University of South Carolina is named for her.
Charlotta Spears Bass
Born in Sumter, Bass was a journalist and social activist who made history in 1952 as the first Black female vice presidential candidate in the United States.
Mary McLeod Bethune
The daughter of former slaves, the Sumter native was an advocate for using education to break the cycle of poverty in African American communities. She started a school for African American girls in 1904 which would later become Bethune-Cookman University. She worked in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration as Special Advisor on Minority Affairs and founded the National Council for Negro Women in 1935. Her portrait currently hangs in the South Carolina State House.
Septima Poinsette Clark
Known as the “Queen Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”, the Charleston native was a pioneer in grassroots citizenship education. She was a leader in the NAACP, Highlander School, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She helped establish Citizenship Schools across the South to help Black people learn to read so they could vote. When Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he asked Clark to come along saying she deserved the award just as much as he did.
The Judge from Kingstree was the first woman to serve as a South Carolina Circuit Judge and the first woman to serve as an acting member of the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Ann Pamela Cunningham
Born in Laurens County, Cunningham founded the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the organization responsible for preserving and restoring George Washington’s home. MVLA is one of the earliest preservation and heritage organizations in the United States. Her portrait also hangs in the South Carolina State House.
The actress, born in St. Matthews, is the first African-American to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting having won an Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy Award, and two Tony Awards. In 2021, she made history as the most-nominated Black actress in Hollywood history. She was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012 and 2017.
Marian Wright Edelman
Marian Wright Edelman
A native of Bennettsville, Edelman is an activist for civil rights and children’s rights. She became the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 1964 after attending Yale Law School. In 1973, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund, an organization that focuses on advocacy, research, and policy solutions to better the lives of children. Edelman was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Dr. Irene Dillard Elliott
In 1924, Dr. Elliott became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina and a short time later became the first female faculty member at the University of South Carolina. She is also credited with starting USC’s chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Mary Gordon Ellis
Born in the small community of Gourdin in Williamsburg County, Ellis was an educator and politician who became the first woman to serve in the South Carolina Legislature with her election to the State Senate in 1928. Her portrait hangs in the Senate Chamber.
Dr. Matilda Arabelle Evans
A native of Columbia, Dr. Evans was the first African American woman licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina. She fought to provide free medical exams for public schoolchildren and opened Columbia’s first hospital for African Americans, the Taylor Lane Hospital.
Faulkner is an educator best known for being the first female student to attend the Citadel in 1994 after winning a Supreme Court ruling that declared the military college’s male-only admissions policy unconstitutional. Due to the significant hostility she faced, she only lasted one week in the Corps of Cadets. However, her groundbreaking story paved the way for all future female cadets at the Citadel.
Sarah Mae Fleming
One year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Fleming sat in the Whites-only section of a bus in Columbia and was harassed by the bus driver. She sued SCE&G, who operated the bus, and her case went on to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to join the other cases fighting segregation. This act of bravery earned the Eastover native the title of “unsung hero of Civil Rights.”
Born in Clarendon County in 1927, Gibson is best known for shattering racial barriers in tennis. In 1956, she became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title winning Wimbledon, the French Open, the Australian Open, and the U.S. Open. In fact, she was one of the first Black competitors at Wimbledon. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Lucille “Miss Ludy” Ellerbe Godbold
Godbold achieved prominence as one of America’s first female Olympic champions winning six medals for Track & Field at the 1922 World Meet, which was a precursor to today’s Olympics. In 1961, Godbold became the first woman to be inducted into the South Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Born in Bamberg, Haley was the first Indian-American to hold public office in the state after being elected to the SC House of Representatives in 2004. In 2010, she was elected as the state’s first female Governor, a position which she held until 2017 when she was named Ambassador to the United Nations. She served in that role until 2019 and founded the Stand for America PAC.
Just recently, she announced her campaign for President of the United States.
Caroline Etheredge Hembel
A pioneer in aviation, Hembel was the first female graduate of USC’s Civilian Pilot Training Program and the first woman in the 11 southeastern states to earn a pilot’s license. In 1943, she was selected to serve as one of World War II’s famous Women’s Auxillary Service Pilots (WASPs).
This Orangeburg native was the first African-American woman admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1940. After relocating to Atlanta, she became active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on pertinent NAACP cases.
Clelia Peronneau Mathewes McGowan
Born in Columbia in 1865, McGowan served on the South Carolina Board of Education for seven years and was the first woman elected to public office in Charleston.
Mary C. Simms Oliphant
Oliphant literally “wrote the book” on South Carolina’s history. In 1916, she was tasked with updating the “History of South Carolina,” written by her grandfather in 1840. The revised text was adopted by the South Carolina Board of Education and was taught in schools until 1932. That same year, Oliphant printed her own history textbook entitled “The Simms History” which was used until 1985. Oliphant received the Order of the Palmetto in 1982– the first woman to receive South Carolina’s highest civilian award.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney
Pinckney is credited with the success of indigo as a cash crop in Colonial South Carolina. She worked on a farm near Charleston, developing new strains of indigo. Within two years, her efforts launched the state’s indigo industry, increasing the volume of exports by more than 2500%.
Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who grew up on a South Carolina plantation, were among the earliest and most prominent abolitionists and women’s rights activists. They were some of the first American women to speak out and act publicly in social reform movements.
A native of Laurens County, Peterkin was an author who wrote primarily about plantation life and the Gullah-Geechee people. In 1929, she won a Pulitzer Prize in Literature for her novel “Scarlet Sister Mary.”
The Pollitzer sisters, Carrie, Mabel, and Anita were suffragettes who grew up in Downtown Charleston. The eldest, Carrie, was an active member of the National Women’s Party and advocated for women to be admitted to the College of Charleston. Mabel served as Chair of the South Carolina chapter of the National Women’s Party, as did Anita. Anita was friends with the famous artist George O’Keeffe.
Modjeska Monteith Simkins
Simkins, a schoolteacher, was born in Columbia at the turn of the 20th century. An active member of the South Carolina chapter of the NCAAP, her experience in the classroom helped shape a lawsuit against Clarendon County requesting equality for black schools. That case joined a group of similar lawsuits from around the South and led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court decided that the concept of ‘separate, but equal’ was unconstitutional.
Elizabeth Ann Timothy
As editor and publisher of the South Carolina Gazette, Timothy became the country’s first female newspaper owner, editor, and publisher after her husband’s death. The paper had been started by her husband with financial backing from Benjamin Franklin in 1733. The couple’s 13-year-old son Peter’s name appeared on the masthead of the Gazette as a publisher as was the cultural norm at the time. However, it was Timothy who oversaw the paper’s operations until Peter turned 21.
Honorable Jean Hoefor Toal
This Columbia native became the first woman justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court and in 2000 was named Chief Justice of the court, a role which she held until her retirement in 2015. Toal was the first recipient of the Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education by the National Center for State Courts.
Angelica Singleton Van Buren
Born in the small town of Wedgewood in Sumter County in 1818, Van Buren was an heiress and the daughter-in-law of Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. President. Because the president’s wife had died before he took office and he never remarried, Van Buren assumed the role of First Lady at the age of 18.
Elizabeth Hawley Gasque Van Exem
In 1938 she became the first woman from South Carolina elected to the US Congress. Her first husband had represented the 6th District in the U.S. House of Representatives and when he died in office, she won a special election to fill his seat. She served the remaining three months of his term and did not seek re-election.