‘Women, their rights and nothing less.’

  • Thursday, August 28, 2014

Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn addresses attendees at the Aug. 26 Women’s Equality Day event sponsored by the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce. Anita Crone/South Strand News

‘When I was 16, the outlook for career-minded women was almost as dismal as my future as a seamstress.’
S.C. Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn

Kaye Hearn did not raise her voice as she looked over the crowd of about 55 women and three men gathered Aug. 26 at Nosh. She didn’t need to. Her measured tones said it all.

Hearn, the second woman to ever serve on the S.C. Supreme Court, was the featured speaker at the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Equality Day Celebration, the first of what the Chamber hopes will be many events aimed toward women, said Chamber CEO Jeff Smith.

Hearn recounted the fight for women’s equality, from the passage of the 19th amendment to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment and the battle for equal pay, detouring slightly to recount the fight that one of her mentors, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, successfully prosecuted to allow a woman to serve as a page in the General Assembly.

Toal and Hearn have shared a history as well as career stops. The women were elected chiefs of their respective courts on the same day, Toal to the state’s highest court, Hearn to the Court of Appeals.

Ironically, it is in the judiciary that South Carolina ranks high. A WalletHub survey put the state at No. 30 for women’s equality, dragged down by a dismal 49 ranking for political empowerment. Despite Nikki Haley as governor, the state has few women in elected office.

The judiciary, however, has nearly 30 percent women.

But it almost didn’t happen. While Tennessee became the needed 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment on Aug. 20, 1920, it took South Carolina much longer.

“It was not our finest hour,” Hearn said to chuckles. It wasn’t until 1969 that the state gave its approval to the amendment, and then, said Hearn, the “paperwork was lost. Only four states dragged their feet longer than we did – Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and thank God for Mississippi.”

She recounted growing up in the Alleghany Mountains of Pennsylvania, at a time when all junior high girls were required to take home economics – sewing and cooking – and boys took woodshop. She easily handled the cooking, but the sewing was another matter.

“To add insult to injury, our sewing project in home ec was an apron. After whacking off the hem of the apron so many times, when my parents came to PTO, my project was a potholder.

“When I was 16, the outlook for career-minded women was almost as dismal as my future as a seamstress.”

She noted that women were encouraged to major in education, home economics and English, and there were very few tenured professors.

That did not stop her. When she enrolled in Bethany College in West Virginia, she said she did what women students did in 1968. “I became a cheerleader, I pledged a sorority and I learned to drink beer.”

In her second year she had been elected vice president of women students, and in her third, the president of the group was unable to attend a women’s conference in Washington, D.C. Hearn went instead.

“When I arrived,” she said, “someone pinned a button on me with the numerals 51. That was the difference between the pay for men and women.”

It was while she was a law student at the University of South Carolina that she came into contact with Toal and Supreme Court Justice JB “Bubba” Ness.

When a group of her “mostly male” classmates opted to visit the State House to hear the debate on the Equal Rights Amendment, a lawyer – Toal – was chosen to debate anti-ERA Amendment opponent Phyllis Schlafly.

Toal was so effective that she persuaded the House to support the amendment, 83-0. The Senate, however, defeated the bill.

The other influence was JB “Bubba” Ness, the Supreme Court justice who hired Hearn as a clerk and later encouraged her to run for judge, a major push to the woman who, when she entered practice in Horry County, was only the third female lawyer in the county.

Hearn noted that she had an easier time than Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who graduated No. 3 in her class at Stanford, but was offered only a job as a legal secretary.

Extolling how far women have come, Hearn asked whether we still need to celebrate Women’s Equality Day.

“My response is a resounding ‘yes,’” she said.

“Young people in the Millennial Generation may not agree with me…but I am disheartened by what I perceive to be a lack of enthusiasm.

“Perhaps it seems irrelevant to them because they’ve grown up with a sense of equality. For them, equal rights is like fluoride. It’s in the water.

“But we cannot rest on the laurels of the suffragettes, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, because the work they began is not finished,” said Hearn.

Today, she said, women earn 79 cents for every dollar of a man’s wages. Better, but not good enough. “But for all of us, for our daughters and our sons, we should continue to strive to achieve what Susan B. Anthony envisioned well over 100 years ago, when she wrote, ‘Men, their rights and nothing more. Women, their rights and nothing less.’”

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