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School of Law

  • Suffragists march in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of over one million New York women demanding to vote.

The long march towards equality

This August, as our nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, we wanted to share how the contributions of one South Carolina Law graduate, Ida Salley Reamer, helped the movement gain traction in the Palmetto State.

But as we dove into the research, we came across the stories of other alumnae who also made tremendous strides in the fight for the rights of others. And while this fact by itself isn’t surprising, it is remarkable how interconnected their stories are, with each generation building upon the successes of the last.

We acknowledge that there is still work to do, and many more stories to tell. And we hope to be able to share them in the future. But as we approach the century mark of the 19th Amendment, we begin by celebrating five female legal pioneers who have brought us this far on the long march towards equality.

 

Ida Salley Reamer

1884-1958

Ida Salley Reamer

Ida Salley Reamer. Courtesy Nela Edgar.

On October 17, 2020, a group of distinguished guests gathered in the Coleman Karesh Reading Room of the law library for a special ceremony in which the law diploma and South Carolina Bar license of 1922 alumna Ida Salley Reamer were donated to the School of Law. During the ceremony, Nela Edgar, Reamer’s granddaughter, spoke eloquently of her grandmother and the mark her grandmother made on women’s suffrage and children’s rights in her decades-long advocacy career.

Reamer burst into South Carolina history on Christmas day in 1884, and grew up on a farm in Salley, South Carolina, near Aiken. She married her brother’s college roommate but was not content to spend her days as a homemaker in Columbia or idly playing bridge with society women, Edgar says.

With her two children in tow, she traveled door-to-door around the city to drum up support for women’s voting rights as a member of the Equal Suffrage League of Columbia. After the 19th amendment passed in 1920, she began educating women about voting registration requirements. Reamer was elected president of the League of Women Voters of Columbia and Richland County and became one of the first women in the state to register to vote, according to Historic Columbia.

Her interest in exploring her rights as an enfranchised citizen inspired her to attend law school at South Carolina where she created the first women’s citizenship course and enlisted her daughter to act in moot court divorce cases. She graduated in 1922 as the top student in her class.

Reamer was one of the first 10 women to join the South Carolina bar. Although her husband discouraged her from opening a law practice, she used her law degree in everything she did, Edgar says. For instance, her training helped her craft compelling arguments in her testimony before legislative committees on behalf of advocacy groups. Reamer also worked pro bono for African-American sharecroppers and bailed numerous bootleggers out of jail.

She was unabashed about using her talents, according to Historic Columbia saying, “God gave me a brain to use and a heart to love, and I should use them both.”

Sarah Leverette

1919 - 2018

Left to right: Mrs. Keller Bumgardner, second vice president; Mrs. Harriet King, first vice president; and Sarah Leverette, president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina in the law library at the University of South Carolina in 1958.

Left to right are Mrs. Keller Bumgardner, second vice president; Mrs. Harriet King, first vice president; and Sarah Leverette, president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina in the law library at the University of South Carolina in 1958. Courtesy of Richland Library, Columbia, S.C.

Like Reamer before her, Sarah Leverette ’43 played an active role in advancing women’s civic rights in South Carolina and also shaped many of the state’s well-known legal minds.

She was the only woman to enlist in the South Carolina Wing of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II, but after the war ended, she found the only legal work available to her involved non-attorney work, such as document preparation.

The final straw came when she was asked to clean the office. She promptly resigned.

“I knew the door was closed for women, but I didn’t know it was locked,” she recalled.

In 1947 Leverette was recruited to work as a law librarian at the law school, where she became its first female faculty member.
 

For 25 years, she mentored hundreds of students including I.S. Leevy Johnson ’68 (the first African-American president of the South Carolina bar), Fritz Hollings ’47 (former U.S. senator who thanked her in his book Making Government Work,) and Jean Toal ’68 (former chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court).

Toal, who considered Leverette a mentor and friend, was fond of saying, “I tell her, ‘I want to grow up and be just like you.’”

Outside of the law school, Leverette continued to advance women’s rights in Columbia and across the state. During the 1950s, she helped revitalize the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, serving as its president from 1958-1961. She also joined the group’s charge for women to serve on state juries, which finally became law in 1967.

 

Jean H. Toal

1943-Present

Jean Toal, with husband William and daughter Lilla, react as Toal is elected by the General Assembly as the first woman to serve on the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1988.

Jean Toal, with husband William and daughter Lilla, react as Toal is elected by the General Assembly as the first woman to serve on the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1988. Courtesy of Richland Library, Columbia, S.C.

One of the first beneficiaries of this legislation was a young Jean H. Toal. The future first-female justice and chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Toal graduated from the School of Law in 1968, becoming one of only three women trying cases in the state—and now doing so before a mixed-gender jury.

Over her career, Toal also served 13 years as a state representative, staunchly advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment and pressing for laws that addressed sex crimes and created a victim’s compensation program, according to the State. She also pushed for women to be hired as legal staff for the General Assembly and to be elected to the state bench.

A trailblazer throughout her life, the seeds of Toal’s activism were planted in her high school years, where she joined the South Carolina Christian Action Council, “an interfaith, biracial group opposed to segregation,” according to Historic Columbia. She and other members watched the famed attorney Matthew J. Perry Jr. defend young demonstrators, laying the groundwork for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Edwards v. South Carolina (1963).

She decided to attend law school after taking a constitutional law class in college, but like Reamer and Leverette before her, was still only one of a handful of female students in her class.

Early in her career, she was mentored by Jean Galloway Bissell '58, who went on to become South Carolina’s first female federal judge. And while successfully representing law student Vickie Eslinger in a sex discrimination case against the South Carolina Senate, she consulted with the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and its co-founder, then-law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It is arguably because of her experiences with these women that Toal espouses the importance of mentoring to advance the next generation of female attorneys. Her lesson, coined the ladder principle, follows:

“As you climb the ladder of success, do not stop to bask in the spotlight of your own success alone; do not ‘pull up the ladder’ once you are aboard. Instead, leave it down for those who come behind you and offer them a hand in achieving the same success that you enjoy.”

Edna Smith Primus

1944-2019

Edna Primus, 1973.

Edna Primus, 1973. Photo Courtesy of Richland Library, Columbia, S.C.

 

The year after an outspoken Toal graduated from law school, a quiet but resolved Edna Smith Primus '72 entered. Born in Yemasee to sharecroppers, she wanted to use her law degree to serve the poor. Along the way, she ended up as the school’ first black female alumna and helped establish the U.S. Supreme court precedent for legal advocacy.

After graduation, she began working with the South Carolina Council on Human Rights and was sent to meet with a small group of pregnant women on welfare in Aiken. Because the women already had two or more children, their physician was refusing to deliver their babies unless they consented to sterilization.

Primus, in her role as vice president of the S.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, followed up with the women via letters offering legal counsel. The first lawsuit against the physician was filed in spring of 1974.

In May 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling, finding the state had violated the First and 14th amendments in the use of its disciplinary rules and concluded that Primus’s client outreach was “undertaken to express personal political beliefs and to advance the civil liberties objectives of the ACLU rather than to derive financial gain.”

Primus noted the significance of the case, which continues to be taught today in professional responsibility courses.

“It was…important that as an organization we could inform people of their rights, especially people who would have no way of knowing about their rights,” she said.

Eslinger again stood up for equal rights when her application to serve as a page was rejected because of her gender. She enlisted legal help from the ACLU and Toal to sue the then-governor and individual state senators. She battled against general stereotypes and such claims as that the legislators would fill the positions with their “girlfriends” or that it would be unsafe for female pages to work alone at night. The duo won on appeal just a few weeks before Eslinger’s graduation. While she never served as a page, her victory ushered in a new era for women to participate in the South Carolina legislature.

Now a partner with Nexsen Pruet, Eslinger has continued to take on cases involving timely civil rights issues, including gay marriage and migrant worker detention.

“I think, and have always thought, that everybody should have equal access to justice and not be treated differently because of the color of your skin, the religion you practice or your gender.”

While the law school's gender barrier was broken back in 1918 when Claudia Smith Sullivan became the first woman to graduate, it may be surprising to know that when Eslinger entered South Carolina Law a half century later, she was still one of only five women in her class. But thanks to the accomplishments of these women--and many others--today women compose almost half of the full-time faculty and more than 40 percent of the student population.

"My presence at the law school, as a woman and a person of color, would not be possible without their bravery, and in fact, the work I do as associate dean builds on their example," said Susan Kuo, associate dean for diversity and inclusion.

"We have more work to do, but the law school’s commitment to social justice is reflected in scholarship produced by faculty and students, in clinics that give law students the chance to learn legal skills while helping underserved populations, the strength of its Pro Bono Program and Children's Law Center, as well as a wide range of doctrinal courses," she added. "These illustrious graduates did so much to help us get to where we are now, and I’m excited to see where today's female students will take us in the future."


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