On January 14th, 1868, a group of 124 delegates met to write a new constitution for South Carolina. Making up the majority of those delegates were seventy-three black men set to take on the civil rights debates of the day, but some delegates would also attempt to address some of the inequalities at the heart of rigid Southern gender roles that kept women from voting, racially segregated women’s lives and opportunities, and allowed class divisions to leave poor women vulnerable.
The events that led up to the convention were both extraordinary and tumultuous. In the initial period after the conclusion of the Civil War, white elites sought to maintain the power structures that had benefited them before the war. Official readmission into the Union required southern states to retract their articles of secession and acknowledge that formerly enslaved persons were legally emancipated. Aside from conceding to those two concessions, the delegates who made up the 1865 Constitutional Convention attempted to protect white male supremacy as much as feasible. The 1865 Constitution declared that representation within the state would be apportioned from the number of white inhabitants and that only white men would be allowed to vote. In subsequent legislative sessions, lawmakers passed “Black Codes” which placed restrictions on black individuals’ activities. The laws limited travel, implemented unreasonably high fees for any person of color trying to start their own business or trade commercially, and created separate courts for black men and women.
These efforts to thwart or delay reconstruction in South Carolina and across the former Confederate states prompted federal legislators to impose harsher regulations for readmission. The Reconstruction Acts, passed March of 1867, placed seceded states under martial law until the states met a series of requirements: extend the vote to all male citizens, have those citizens elect delegates to a new constitutional convention, submit the resulting constitution for voter approval, ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and disband all military organizations. These requirements set the stage for the unprecedented convention that followed.
South Carolina Democrats (the party aligned with white supremacy at the time), immediately plotted to sabotage the ballot for the convention and delegates. The regulation stated that the new convention would only be assembled if a majority of all registered voters voted in favor of it. Anyone who refused to vote would effectively count as a vote against the convention. To sideline the convention, Democrats urged people to register and then boycott the election. Their plan was nearly successful, but a high turn out from black voters eager to participate in their first election created the majority needed to mandate the new convention. Because those protesting had simply refused to show up at all, they were unable to cast their votes for who the delegates would be. The result was a delegation that was majority African American, Republican, and remarkably progressive for South Carolina in the late Nineteenth Century.
For fifty-three days, the delegates met and debated resolutions that would eventually form the new state constitution. The nature of this convention was unprecedented in South Carolina. The majority of the delegates had been denied their fundamental rights since the earliest days of the state and country. Now, they had an opportunity to enact laws that they hoped would better protect the rights of all state citizens. Within this context of restoring and securing rights, the delegates proposed several measures that would directly benefit women in South Carolina. In 1868, women could not vote in elections or serve as elected officials. The rigid gender roles of Southern white society left women with few opportunities to exert their own authority or independence. While white women from elite families had access to education and supportive social networks, poor white women could not rely on the same resources. Moreover, black women were completely barred from any meaningful protections or representation in a culture that prized white male supremacy above all. While their efforts were far from perfect, delegates at the Constitutional Convention attempted to address some of these disparities.
One of the more progressive aims of the delegation was to establish a system of education that was accessible to all South Carolina children. Early in the convention, C. C. Bowen introduced a proposed Bill of Rights, which listed access to schools as a fundamental right of South Carolina’s people. The original wording read, “No laws shall ever be passed to prevent the poor in the several districts within this State, from an equal participation in the Schools, Academies, Colleges and Universities within the State… and the doors of said Schools, Academies and Universities shall be open for the reception of scholars, students and teachers, of every grade, without any distinction or preference whatever.” The language is striking and sets the framework for an education system that could offer schooling to African American and white children, both boys and girls. The delegates went beyond access, and determined that an educated public was crucial to well-being of the state. They drafted a resolution that would require parents and guardians to send their children between the ages of seven and fourteen to school for at least six months a year.
On March 6th and 7th, delegates debated a resolution that had been drafted earlier in the convention. The proposed text read, “The real and personal property of a woman, held at the time of her marriage, or that which she may thereafter acquire, either by gift, grant or inheritance, or devise, shall not be subject to levy and sale for her husband’s debts; but may be bequeathed, devised, or alienated by her, the same as if she were unmarried; Provided, that no gift or grant from the husband to the wife shall be detrimental to the just claims of creditors.” Francis E. Wilder suggested the section instead read, “The Legislature shall provide for the protection of the rights of women in acquiring and possessing property, real, personal ,and mixed separate and apart from the husband; and shall also provide for their equal rights and possession of their children.” The two suggested versions differ in whether the delegation would draft women’s property rights into the text of the constitution or if they would assign future legislatures to draft these laws.
Debate continued on which version of the text to use, and if the new law needed to include a section requiring husbands and wives to inventory their property prior to marriage. The latter measure was an effort to prevent husbands from transferring property to wives in order to avoid having their property taken to settle debts. James M. Allen defended the original wording and the necessity of adding the law to the Constitution in a speech to delegation. “Nearly all states of the Union have have passed laws for the protection of women’s property; and shall we, when we have passed page after page of enactments, explaining the rights of man, stop here and make a wry face at a single cause?” The appeals of those in favor of original wording proved effective, and the completed constitution guaranteed women’s rights to protect their property.
Near the end of the Convention, during a final reading of the laws guaranteeing suffrage to all male citizens, William J. Whipper delivered an impassioned statement arguing for women’s suffrage.
I tell you here that I know the time will come when every man and woman in this country will have the right to vote…Governments will continue to totter and fall until the rights of all parties are respected- womankind as well and mankind. We have seen the uprising and downfall of Republics everywhere, and the great secret of revolution has been, that governments have not extended the rights of the people to this sex. The systems of legislation have been laid upon insecure foundations, and they will never be permanent until women are recognized as the equal of men, and with him permitted to enjoy the privileges which appertain to the citizen…Sooner or later everything in the shape of tyranny must yield; and however derisively we may treat the noble women who are struggling for their sex, we shall yet see them successful in the assertion of their rights.
Whipper’s appeal was ultimately unsuccessful, and his request to remove the word “male” from the suffrage laws was struck down. However, by delivering this speech, Whipper was able to assert his belief that South Carolina’s new government should be one that guaranteed equal rights for all citizens.
The potential for progress created by the 1865 delegates was not long-lived. South Carolina Democrats doubled down on their efforts to reclaim control of the government. Following an election marked by violence and fraud, Democrats regained their political authority in 1876. Under the urging of Governor Ben Tillman and his supporters, a 1894 ballot successfully called for a new constitutional convention. These delegates assembled with the goal of crippling the political power of black citizens. Laws within the 1895 Constitution implemented a poll tax and literacy requirements for suffrage, segregated schools by race, and outlawed interracial marriages.
Though the political progress of Reconstruction was short-lived, the 1868 Convention marked an important point in South Carolina’s history. For the first time, the state’s black citizens were able to participate in the political process as voters and lawmakers. Throughout the assembly, delegates aimed to create a constitution that would protect those citizens’ equality under the law. As part of this mission, multiple delegates felt their duties required them to speak on behalf of female citizens. This moment in history is not perfect – the voices of those advocating for women’s rights are too few and the victories gained by the delegation are too brief. But in a period book-ended by prejudice and violence, the 1868 Convention offered a glimpse of hope that equality and fairness could form the guiding principles of the law.