By Leigh Savage
Though many of the names aren’t found in the history books, women have been making their mark on South Carolina’s business community for centuries.
“So often, as a result of the gendered environment that valued men’s contributions above women’s, men took credit for the work of women who worked with and for them,” says Dr. Courtney Tollison, Distinguished University Public Historian and Scholar in the history department at Furman University.
Tollison says white women, including middle class and elite women, had to overcome familial and societal expectations, educational disparities and issues around combining work and family life.
Black women had even more challenges to overcome. “Historically, many African American women, particularly in the South, did not have the luxury of not working, regardless of their marriage and family status.”
She applauds recent work by historians who have generated awareness of the fact that women’s experiences vary greatly along the lines of race, class and sexual identity.
And while those obstacles are smaller and fewer today, significant hurdles remain, including lack of mentorship and unequal pay.
“While South Carolina is not unique in the barriers women face, and there are many, the barrier that comes to mind immediately is the lack of mentorship and sponsorship relationships for women,” says Dr. Carole Sox, director of the Women’s Business Center at Columbia College. “It has been proven that these relationships positively impact those engaging in them, but there is a lack of these relationships engaged in by women overall.”
Despite that, South Carolina ranks second in the nation in proportion of women-owned businesses, with 54.33 percent, according to a 2020 report shared by tech company UENI.
Sox says that statistic, and the large number of resources available to assist women in the business community, “highlight the important role women have played in shaping and furthering the business community of South Carolina.”
Here we take a look at the contributions of six women who were born in the Palmetto State or settled here. Some are well-known and others less so, but all six forged new paths, overcame vast challenges and are deserving of a place in South Carolina history.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney
One of the original South Carolina business women, Eliza Pinckney had a role that was rare in the mid-1700s - she managed her father’s lands and eventually was credited with building the indigo industry.
Her father, George Lucas, was lieutenant governor of Antigua, where she grew up with an interest in botany. She arrived in the Charleston area at age 14 and quickly recognized the area’s reliance on rice as a cash crop. Historians say she frequently looked for ways to make her family’s three plantations more profitable, and she saw that with the growth of the textile industry, the market for dyes would expand.
Chafing at the limitations of her time, she wrote to a friend,“I am making a large plantation of oaks, which I took upon as my own property, whether my father gives me the land or not.” She was planting them in hopes that she could one day sell them to ship builders.
Then Pinckney landed on indigo, which was grown on land that couldn’t be used to grow rice. Mocked at first by farmers in the area, as others had struggled to grow it on South Carolina soil, she managed - aided by the labor of African slaves - to grow enough to create dyes and eventually export the product.
Within two years, exports exploded, rocketing to 130,000 pounds annually, second only to rice. Planters were doubling their money every few years, and by the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775, indigo made up one-third of the state’s exports, at over a million pounds exported per year. In 1989, she was the first woman inducted into the S.C. Business Hall of Fame.
Though she is one of the most well-known women of her time, historians are still uncovering the extent of her contributions. Historian Lorri Glover recently released “Eliza Lucas Pinckney: An Independent Woman in the Age of Revolution,” which relies on Pinckney’s papers and, according to Tollison, argues that Pinckney was among the most successful “planter-patriarchs” in the 18th-century South, which “completely challenges the prevailing narrative of this time as one exclusive to men.”
Sylvia Pressley Woods
Born in Hemingway in 1926, Sylvia Woods was largely raised by her grandmother Sylvia Johnson, a farmer. Young Sylvia spent her early years working in the bean fields and learning how to make hearty meals at the knee of her mother and grandmother.
She graduated from high school in Hemingway, married Herbert Woods in 1944 and moved to New York City two years later.
She began as a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette in Harlem, and then operated the cafe when the owner retired. By 1962, she purchased the cafe for $20,000 and renamed it Sylvia’s. Rave reviews from customers and publications led the cafe to eventually expand to an entire city block, with seating for 450.
The family business continued to expand from there, with husband Herbert Woods and all four children involved in Sylvia Woods Enterprises, which also sells sauces, dressings, seasonings and prepared vegetables. In 1997, a second outpost was opened in Atlanta, and she produced popular cookbooks, including “Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook.”
She stepped down from day-to-day operations at age 80 and died in 2012. The restaurant continues to thrive, with popular gospel brunch on Sundays, among other offerings. The corner of W. 126th street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem is now called Sylvia P. Woods Way.
Eugenia Thomas Duke
Born in Georgia in 1881, Eugenia Slade married Harry Duke in 1900, and they eventually moved to Greenville due to Harry’s job at Southern Power Company.
In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, soldiers descended on the area to train at Camp Sevier, and Eugenia, a self-described housewife, decided to sell sandwiches to hungry soldiers for 10 cents each.
After the war, she kept selling them, mainly at drug stores. By 1923, she could barely keep up with orders, and one of her staff members suggested that she focus on her mayonnaise, which made the sandwiches so unique and sought-after.
Soon after came the fateful day the Eugenia Duke did what so few women had the opportunity to do at the time - she became a manufacturer. Her spread was produced in a former coach factory building alongside the Reedy River, now known as Wyche Pavilion.
Duke’s business acumen quickly became apparent as she struck deals with popular hotels and other businesses to sell her products.
She eventually sold her business to C.F. Sauer, and her name to her bookkeeper J. Allen Hart, who opened the Duke Sandwich Company. After moving to California, she couldn’t resist getting back into the entrepreneurial world, creating The Duchess Sandwich Company, which she ran until she died at age 90.
Today, her mayonnaise - the third best selling behind Hellmann’s and Kraft - is still made in Mauldin, just a few miles from the Manly Street home where Eugenia Duke invented it.
Marian Wright Edelman
Marian Wright was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina, graduating from high school there and heading off to Spelman College in Atlanta in 1956.
During her senior year, she became involved with the civil rights movement, including participating in sit-ins at Atlanta restaurants. After graduating as valedictorian, she went on to Yale Law School and became the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 1964. She joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund as director, focusing on racial justice issues.
During her time with the NAACP, she helped develop the Head Start program and also popularized the phrase “Leave no child behind.”
She later worked with Martin Luther King Jr. on the Poor People’s Campaign and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and founded the Washington Research Project, a law firm that lobbied for nutrition programs for children and the expansion of Head Start.
In 1973, the Washington Research Project became the Children’s Defense Fund. This organization was designed to give a voice to poor children, children of color and children with disabilities. She worked on desegregation cases and lobbied Congress to make changes to foster care, adoption and protections for children.
She has earned numerous awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship in 1985, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Citizen Leadership. She has written several books, including “Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change” and “The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours.”
She became president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund in 2020.
Mary Putnam Gridley
Born in Massachusetts in 1850, Mary Putnam moved to Greenville in the 1870s thanks to her father’s work as a developer of cotton mills.
She married Isaac Gridley in 1876, and he died two years later. She then became a mill bookkeeper for her father, and after he died in 1890, became the first woman mill president in the state, presiding over Batesville Mill for 22 years until it was sold in 1912.
She often signed her name M.P. Gridley to avoid questions about her leadership abilities.
In 1889, she and Frances Perry Beattie formed the Thursday Club, a literary and study organization for women and the first of its kind in the state. Gridley presided over the club for 40 years.
Through her efforts with the club, she became involved in a variety of cultural and social issues, including helping to fund and create a tuberculosis sanitarium that opened in 1930. She was also a leader of the South Carolina Equal Rights Association, helped establish Greenville’s first public library and advocated for public playgrounds.
Charlotta Bass accomplished many firsts in her life, including being considered the first African American woman in the United States to own and operate a newspaper and the first African American woman nominated for vice president.
Charlotta Spears was born in Sumter, the sixth of 11 children, and by 1900, had moved to Rhode Island. At age 20, she began selling subscriptions for the Providence Watchman, a Black-owned newspaper.
She later moved to California and went to work for the California Eagle. When the founder died, she became the editor, and later purchased the newspaper for $50. She eventually hired Joseph Bass as editor, retaining the title of managing editor, and they later married. The newspaper grew from four pages to a 20-page weekly, and it became the largest Black newspaper on the West Coast.
She used the newspaper to bring causes to light, including employment discrimination, and she began speaking out on racial injustice. Bass often used her paper to expose crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan, and even fought off several angry KKK members with a pistol.
A founding member of the Independent Progressive Party of California, the former Republican made history again as the vice presidential candidate on the Progressive Party ticket alongside presidential candidate Vincent Hallinan.
For the remainder of her life, she continued to give speeches and register voters, and published her book “Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper” in 1960.