Friday, May 7, 2010

State Museums Virtual Exhibition
By Judit Trunkos
The S.C. State Museum’s features a new virtual exhibit that shares information about various South Carolina women from the 18th-21st Century, who have made a great impact on history. “A Woman’s Light: Making History in South Carolina” highlights strong and successful women –artists, athletes, politicians, civil rights activist, business women, army officers, and educators—whose contributions have impacted not only South Carolina but the entire nation. Some of the women introduced are: Althea Gibson, Mary Gordon Ellis, The Hon. Elizabeth Gasque Van Exem, Darla Moore, Maj. Gen. Kathryn G. Frost and many more.
Women’s role in public life has been transforming since the 19th Century. Until then, women were confined to the home due to social restrictions. They were considered intellectually and physically inferior to men and were supposed to restrict their careers to wifehood and motherhood. Consequently, it was not appropriate or desirable for women of higher class to become involved in anything that was physically or mentally challenging, including politics and business. The only exceptions were women of color and working class women. They were still not allowed at the discussion tables, but they were expected to work as hard as men did to earn a living. Women only received the right to vote in 1920. In spite of these restrictions, women have excelled in almost every conceivable field from the colonial period to the present. This virtual exhibit is a tribute to all of them and to those who are making the change happen today.

Mary Gordon Ellis (1890-1934). Ellis was a native of Gourdin, S.C., and she was the first woman elected to the South Carolina State Legislature. A graduate of Winthrop in 1913, Ellis took a teacher/principal position at Gillisonville, S.C. In 1924 she became the superintendent of schools for Jasper County, where she instituted a school bus transportation system so that she could close one-room rural schools and allow students to receive improved education at centralized schools. Ellis paid for her civil rights and education activism with her job. When she declared her intention of purchasing new textbooks for African American schools in the county and to hire an African-American college graduate to supervise Jasper County’s black schools, she was fired.
In 1928 she entered the state Senate race. She narrowly defeated her opponent, who had led the opposition to her education initiatives in Jasper County for African-Americans. As a state senator, Ellis served on various committees including those covering education, the military, natural resources, and penitentiaries. In 1995, a Senate bill was passed that commissioned a portrait of Mrs. Ellis for the Senate Chambers. Those who visit the Capitol building can see her portrait today.
Another one of South Carolina’s leading female political figures was the Honorable Elizabeth Gasque Van Exem (1886-1989). She was born Elizabeth Hawley on Rice Creek Plantation in Richland County. Van Exem was the first woman elected to represent South Carolina in the U. S. Congress.  Elizabeth Hawley attended the South Carolina Coeducational Institute in Edgefield and was graduated from Greenville Female College in 1907. When her husband, Rep. Allard Henry Gasque, a Democrat representing South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, died in 1938, she was elected to fill his unexpired term. She won a special election where she received more than 5,200 votes against her Democratic opponents, who received a combined total of 225 votes. Gasque served as a congresswoman and sought re-election for the position.

Althea Gibson (1927-2003) was born into a poor, working-class family in Silver, S.C. Between 1950 and 1958, Gibson was the best American women’s tennis player and the only internationally ranked African-American player. Gibson was also the first South Carolinian to win the Wimbledon and U.S. Open tournaments and she is holding that record today. In 1950, she became the first African-American to play tennis at the U.S. Open, which was one of the biggest international tennis tournaments. A year later she became the first to play at Wimbledon. During the two years that she won Wimbledon, 1957 and 1958, Gibson was ranked No. 1 in America and in the world. In 1957 and 1958 she also won the singles title at Forest Hills.
During her career she won more than 11 grand slam titles in singles and doubles, which is still one of the best records in the world. She became New Jersey State Commissioner of Athletics in 1975, a post she held for 10 years. She then served on the State’s Athletics Control Board until 1988 and the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness until 1992.

“If it hadn’t been for her,” says Billie Jean King, winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles, “it wouldn’t have been so easy for Arthur (Ashe) or the ones who followed.”
All these South Carolina women accomplished so much and helped other women break out of the inferior social position to finally get to where they are today. This virtual exhibit of 26 women can only be seen online at: http://www.southcarolinastatemuseum.org/women/default.html.

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