Making History: Spartanburg Women in History
Written by Linda Bilanchone
Introduction: Honoring Spartanburg's unique role in politics, Linda Bilanchone was invited to share the stories of groundbreaking women that find their roots in the Hub City and have shattered glass ceilings.
When Liz Patterson, the daughter of U. S. Senator Olin D. Johnston, ran for Congress from the 4th Congressional District in 1986 and 1988, several local women who worked on her campaigns were energized around the idea that we needed to elect more women to political office.
Liz’s political career had begun when she was elected to Spartanburg County Council in 1975. After serving on County Council, Liz was elected to the South Carolina Senate (the second South Carolina woman to serve as a senator) before she ran for Congress. She was a natural; she came from a politically active family with a father who had served both as South Carolina governor and as a U.S. senator. But, it became clear to the women who worked on her campaigns that more women needed to be challenged to run for office if women were ever to achieve appropriate representation in the governing bodies that are the bedrock of our democratic system.
Up to this time, the number of women who had run for office in Spartanburg County was small. Two notable pioneers were Sallie Peake who was elected to Wellford City Council in 1975 and Ellen Hines Smith who was elected to Spartanburg City Council in 1983.
Peake told her story to the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in 1989. She said she heard about a vacancy on the Wellford City Council when she was being trained as a poll worker and so she asked the Wellford mayor about it. She said, “I asked him if it was okay if a woman ran and he said, ‘fine, fine, fine.’ Then I asked him what if she was black and he said, again ‘fine, fine, fine.’” She ran and won and began a long career as a local elected official; she went on to serve from 1982 to 1991 on Spartanburg County Council and also to serve as mayor of Wellford.
Ellen Hines Smith, an attorney and judge who founded Piedmont Legal Services, was the first woman elected to the Spartanburg City Council in 1983. She served until her untimely death in 1998.
With these two role models and Liz Patterson’s political success, in 1989, local women established a nonpartisan organization to identify women to run for political office -- the Spartanburg Women’s Political Caucus, an affiliate of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
The organizational meeting was chronicled in the June 14, 1989, Spartanburg Herald-Journal under the headline, “Women’s Political Group Off and Running.” Karen Mitchell and Margaret Smith were elected as temporary co-chairs. Fifty women attended the meeting and by the end of the evening, forty had paid their dues and joined. Leaders and attendees called attention to the many opportunities for women to serve – from school boards to the state legislature. Beryl Brooks, assistant principal at Fairforest Middle School, said, “How can issues impacting women be met if women are not represented?”
The group was active immediately. On September 14, the Herald-Journal reported that the Spartanburg Women’s Political Caucus had questioned why a woman was not appointed to the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center Board of Trustees. Two women were under consideration for the position that had been vacated by a woman but neither had been selected.
In January of 1990, the newspaper featured Karen Mitchell, the president of the Spartanburg Women’s Political Caucus. Mitchell noted that running for political office was not something women planned to do with their lives. She said, “It starts with talking with qualified women, getting them interested. Then the group must train candidates on how to run a campaign, educate them on the political process and help them win election or secure appointment. We are here to win with women and we will.” The writer of the article noted, “The Women’s Political Caucus plans to make candidates out of political wallflowers.” And, that remark did truly capture the mission of the group.
Members of the SWPC committed themselves to seeking out women and asking them to run for political office. Members visited Johnnye Code Stewart at her home and asked her to run for Spartanburg County Council; she ran and served sixteen years. Members asked Susu Johnson to run for Spartanburg City Council and she did; when Johnson resigned because she was moving, a member of the SWPC approached Lib Fleming at the farewell party for Johnson and asked her to consider running for Johnson’s seat. She did; she ran; she served from 1994 to 2004 and then ran for the South Carolina Public Service Commission where she still serves today. In 1987, Linda Bilanchone ran for City Council and served four years; she ran unsuccessfully for mayor (as did Lib Fleming later); then ran for the City of Spartanburg Commission of Public Works and served for 24 years. Founding women’s political caucus member Barbara Barnes ran successfully for the Sanitary Sewer District Commission in 1994 and she still serves on that board.
Jane Hall has served on County Council; Rita Allison and Donna Hicks have represented us in the state legislature and in what might be called the ultimate success story after some 25 years, the Spartanburg City Council is now composed of a majority of women! Four of the seven members are women – Jan Scalisi, Erica Brown, Laura Stille, and Rosalyn Henderson Myers. Though the Spartanburg Women’s Political Caucus ceased to exist years ago, its legacy can be seen on a daily basis. Thanks to that dedicated group, our community has moved closer to the goal of representation for all and by all.