Columbia City of Women Honoree
Ida Salley Reamer
Image courtesy Nela Edgar
Nestled on page three beside the Society Notes, the June 13, 1922, issue of The State ran a profile of the 1922 University of South Carolina Law Class. “Columbia Women Lead Law Class,” it announced, “Mrs. Cornelius Y. Reamer takes first honor.” Ida Salley Reamer was a prominent citizen of Columbia. A member of the city’s elite by birth and by marriage, she served on the Columbia Civic League and was a regular on the East End Club circuit, “the oldest card club in town.” The article pointed equally to her efforts as a homemaker, a pragmatic student who “can’t keep away from the campus and the collegiate halls and is constantly taking some course or other,” and her civic work, which included “head[ing] the Columbia League of Women Voters.” Reamer accomplished all of this, The State marveled, while “never [having] gotten that harried, hurried look that women of many undertakings frequently get.”
What is today broadly recognized as casual sexism coded as praise was not constrained to the newspaper. Even Reamer’s own law school cohort, who respected her enough to petition for her appointment to the university’s board of trustees, echoed the same sentiments in their yearbook: “Her class work betokens a mental brilliance not to be expected from one who has such varied interests as mother, housekeeper, community worker, and ‘ward healer.’” Reamer recognized the barriers society placed, ones that were designed to treat women as less than men. But as she often told her granddaughter, “You're just as good as any man out there, and you need to stand up and speak for what is right."
Ida Salley was born December 25, 1884, to Ida and Dempsy Hammond Salley. The Salleys sent all 12 of their children—10 girls and two boys—to college. According to her granddaughter, Nela Edgar, Salley was almost expelled from Winthrop College for leaving without a chaperone to attend her father’s funeral:
She slipped out of the dorm, got her horse out of the stable, rode it to the train station, put her horse on the train, and went to Salley. When she got off of the train, she was riding bareback across Salley with her hair flying behind her back. Her brother Hammond was home from Clemson with his roommate, Neil Reamer. And Neil said, "I don't know who that woman is, but I'm going to marry her." And Hammond said, "The hell, you say. That's my sister." And they ended up getting married.
College degree in hand, the newly married Reamers moved to 1507 Pendleton Street, across from the University of South Carolina. By her mid-20s, Reamer was back in school, taking classes at the university while raising her son, William, and daughter, Cornelia. She also joined the Columbia Civic League, an organization founded in 1904 to lobby and plan for beautification efforts around the city. As a master gardener, Reamer oversaw planting projects around Columbia as well as wide-scale distribution of vegetable plants to poor African Americans. After the United States entered World War I, she became a member of the first Red Cross class (led by Anna Heyward Taylor) and served on the Women’s Committee of the State Council of Defense for Richland County and the Liberty Loan Committee of South Carolina. As women across the country stepped into roles traditionally held by men and led the war effort at home, they intensified efforts to secure the right to vote.
Locally, women were inspired to organize by Lila Meade Valentine, the president of Virginia’s Equal Suffrage League, who spoke to men, women, and children on March 16, 1914 at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Columbia. Five days later, more than 80 women, including Reamer, met at the hotel again to form the Equal Suffrage League of Columbia. The state league, which organized on May 15 at the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs convention in Spartanburg, soon published and distributed their platform. It included equal pay for men and women, the abolition of child labor, an eight-hour workday, raising the age of consent from 14 to 21, and a “single standard of morals for men and women.” Over the next six years, the state and local leagues fought for the vote, traversing South Carolina to march in parades and gather petition signatures.
After Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment on June 4, 1919, the group focused on educating women and securing ratification in the South Carolina legislature. Reamer, who organized a women’s citizenship course at the university’s law school that fall, also began taking law courses to prepare for her expanded role as an enfranchised citizen. In June 1920, the Equal Suffrage League merged with the League of Women Voters, and it was this group who met at Craven Hall in downtown Columbia on August 19 to celebrate the amendment’s ratification. Five days later, Reamer was elected president at the official formation of the League of Women Voters of Columbia and Richland County.
On August 30, 1920, Reamer, Bertha Turner Munsell, and Isabel L. Cain swore an oath that they’ve never been convicted of beating their husbands and signed their names to the Richland County Ward One registration book. They, along with Edna Reed Whaley of Aiken, became the first women to register to vote in South Carolina. White women, including the governor’s wife, followed suit across the state. The franchise though, especially in the Democratic Party, was not available to all women. Reports of day-long lines and unsuccessful attempts reached the national headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; even Modjeska Monteith Simkins recalled standing in line for hours with her mother.
This unequal advancement was coded in the Columbia league, which was only open to “any white woman interested in making her vote count.” This stemmed from their direct affiliation with the South Carolina Democratic Party, which barred black voters from participation. The Democratic Party though was the party of white voters across the South; for Reamer and other white activists, this affiliation was thought necessary to pursue their main goal, which was “educate women in citizenship and to urge the adoption of social welfare legislative programs in the national party platforms and the enactment of such programs into laws.”
“God gave me a brain to use and a heart to love, and I should use them both.”
Ida Salley Reamer
Reamer continued to push the boundaries placed on her by society for another 30 years. After completing her law degree, she earned an MA in 1923 and pursued doctoral work. She also took on cases pro-bono for the black families who lived near the Reamers’ country home in Lexington. Although it mainly helped with gaining title to property, Edgar remembered driving with her grandmother to the county jail and bailing out individuals charged with bootlegging offenses. Edgar also recounted a night when the Ku Klux Klan set fire to a cross in their neighbor’s yard. As she watched from the window, both her grandmother and father loaded shotguns and went to stand with the family as protection.
Reamer’s life seemed full of contradictions. A bridge-playing society maven engaged in public affairs who was just as at “ease fishing with a cane pole and churning butter.” An activist for women’s equality, even though it did not extend to all—but was indicative of the struggles she faced. A married woman, she had to fight for ideals that were extremely unpopular among her husband’s peers and much of South Carolina society and then forge ahead as the Great Depression brought extreme poverty and then the dissolution of the League of Women Voters.
She later co-founded the Richland County Board of Public Welfare (the predecessor of the Department of Social Services) and was appointed chairman of the Richland County War Price and Rationing Board. In one request she noted, “There will be no pay, in money. There will be headaches. But you will earn—and enjoy, I hope—the satisfying knowledge that you performed the important duties your neighbors and your government asked of you in these days of war.” Reamer died in 1958, having earned that satisfaction, even though it came without a paycheck.
SHE DID, so that we can ALL have a voice in government.
Craven Hall, built in 1903 by Edwin Wales Robertson as part of Berkeley Flats, was Columbia’s most elegant social hall in the early twentieth century. Beginning in 1920, it served as the meeting place for the Columbia Equal Suffrage League and its successor, the League of Women Voters of Columbia and Richland County, chaired by Ida Salley Reamer. The structure was destroyed by fire in 1922 and rebuilt shortly thereafter.