The Power of the Pollitzer Sisters; Education, Equality and Persuasion

Aug 17, 2020

A pale, pink home with contrasting, black shutters sits along 5 Pitt Street in Charleston.  Its window boxes overflow with colorful flowers, vibrant like the women who once lived there.  An historical marker tells their story.

"Hello, we are the Pollitzer sisters," the recording says.  "Carrie, Mabel and Anita."

It goes on to describe how the sisters grew up in Charleston during the end of the 19th century when women had no voice, no vote and no equal rights.  But that didn't stop them.

"They went against the grain of society," says Katharine Purcell, an English professor and Director of International Education at Trident Technical College.  "They were not quiet."

Purcell helped create an online exhibition about the Pollitzer sisters and played a role in getting that marker in front of their home.  She says their story, as Jewish immigrants who became trailblazers in education and equal rights, must be told.

"What they did 100 years ago has influenced where we are now," she says.

Carrie Pollitzer

Born in 1881, Carrie Pollitzer was the oldest.  She left Charleston when she was 20 years-old to study at the Columbia Teacher's College in New York City.  When she returned, Carrie established Charleston's first free kindergarten program in a carriage house behind her family's home.

Carrie also became a prominent advocate for women's rights in Charleston.  In 1912, she set up a stand at the corner of King and Broad Streets where she handed out pamphlets promoting women's suffrage.

"Come 1917, she decides it's time for the College of Charleston to allow women into the college," says Purcell.

But the school says no. The eldest Pollitzer is told it would cost $1,200 to build new bathroom facilities so she went out and raised $1,500 on her own.  A year later, women were enrolled.

Mabel Pollitzer

Middle sister Mabel Pollitzer followed in her big sister's footsteps and went to Columbia University in New York to study education as well.  She came back to Charleston to teach biology at Memminger High School.

"She had a lot of young girls come to her and ask questions they wouldn't want to talk to their mothers about," says Purcell.

So, Mabel introduced sex education in her biology classes.  It was one of the first such programs in the state.

She also served as the state chair for the National Woman's Party and helped found the first free public library in Charleston County which opened in 1931.

Anita Pollitzer
Credit Library of Congress

Anita Pollitzer

Anita Pollitzer was the youngest and perhaps the most well-known.

She too went to New York to study art.  There she befriended a then little known artist, Georgia O'Keeffe and helped launch her career by introducing O'Keeffe to famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

But Purcell says it's Anita's work helping ratify the 19th amendment that really stands out.  In August of 1920, one more state was needed, and Tennessee was set to cast the deciding vote.

"Anita, I believe is responsible for getting the 19th amendment passed," says Purcell.  "She's the one who went to the Tennessee senator and spent some time with him and convinced him."

"Although he says it was his mother who convinced him," Purcell laughs.  "We like to think it was really our friend Anita."

Whether it was Anita or the senator's mother, it was a woman who persuaded the lawmaker women should have the right to vote.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, South Carolina Public Radio and South Carolina ETV are broadcasting the series Sisterhood: South Carolina Suffragists. The series looks at how local women played roles in a national movement that eventually guaranteed more than 26 million women the right to vote.