Columbia City of Women Honoree
Keller Henderson Bumgardner Barron
Keller Bumgardner Barron, 1979. Image courtesy The State Newspaper Photograph Archive, Richland Library
The ERA is the only feasible and practical step to end the de jure discrimination against women.
-Keller Bumgardner, The Columbia Record, February 21, 1973
On February 25, 1975, supporters and opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) packed the South Carolina State House, the crowd so large it spilled from the spectators’ gallery and into the surrounding hallways. Carloads of out-of-town onlookers gathered under the dome to distribute pamphlets, buttons, and signs—both supporting and condemning the single sentence alteration to the United States Constitution. Throughout the day’s proceedings, intermittent applause burst from the gallery. For hours in cramped quarters legislators, clergymen, college professors, activists, and housewives voiced their impassioned opinions on the ERA, which would guarantee legal rights to all American citizens regardless of sex or gender.
This was the second time in three years that supporters of the ERA filled the State House to make their voices heard. The February 1975 rally, as well as the previous rally in 1973 were organized by Keller Henderson Bumgardner Barron. One of the organizers of the state response to the women’s rights movement, Bumgardner helped to propel this push for equality in South Carolina and across the country.
Can we focus our vision into specific action, to make a difference, to achieve justice, to secure and guarantee the livelihood, well-being, freedom, and dignity of every person in the community, not just those strong enough to insist upon it?
– Keller Barron’s remarks from the Modjeska Simkins Endowment Award Ceremony, May 1, 1982
Keller Henderson grew up in Atlanta. After graduating from Agnes Scott College, she married dentist Sherrod Bumgardner and moved to Columbia in 1953. She joined the League of Women Voters (LWV) in the mid-1950s and in 1963 began her two-year tenure as president of the Columbia LWV. She later served as president of the South Carolina LWV from 1967-1971, with a key moment in her tenure being the desegregation of the organization. Bumgardner was appointed to the national board of the League of Women Voters of the US in 1971. She was subsequently elected to the national board twice serving until 1976.
Through the [L]eague, I met interesting, involved women. They were not only managing their home responsibilities but also they were accepting responsibility for the way their city was managed, how state government was organized, and happenings on the national level.
-Keller Barron, The Columbia Star, November 20, 2012
Prior to 1972, the LWV—nationally and state-wide—didn’t support the ERA. It instead advocated for “good government,” including revision of the South Carolina constitution, regular jury service for women in state courts, apportionment of the legislature substantially on population. The League did not wish to be seen as a single-issue organization, focused solely on women’s rights. Bumgardner’s and the League of Women Voters’ support for the amendment took root at the national convention in Atlanta in 1972. The keynote speaker, Gloria Steinem, asked “Are you for us or against us?” and challenged attendees to lend their support to the movement.
Shortly thereafter, in 1973, the League and the National Organization for Women (NOW) established offices in the unratified states and founded the SC Coalition for the Equal Rights Amendment. Bumgardner served both in a national and statewide capacity, operating from Washington and the League’s ERA office in Columbia, mustering support for ratification as she chaired the national campaign. An involved homemaker, mother of four, active church member, and community leader, Bumgardner embodied the idea that the ERA would not dismantle the lives of South Carolina’s women but expand them.
South Carolina’s attitude towards the ERA reflected that of the South at large—frightened. With vocal opponents like Phyllis Schlafly and her STOP ERA campaign, misinformation and fear mongering about the “loss of female privilege” took its toll on the amendment’s momentum.
These were years of change that demanded intellectual and emotional involvement.
-Keller Barron, The Columbia Star, November 20, 2012
Later in 1977, Bumgardner was part of the SC delegation that traveled to Houston to attend the National Women’s Conference, part of the International Women’s Year. She was featured in the film, A Simple Matter of Justice, hosted by actress Jean Stapleton, which chronicled the conference and the work Bumgardner and three other women from other unratified states were doing for the cause of women’s rights.
That same year, Bumgardner became the first female chair of the South Carolina Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights, serving from 1977 to 1979. In that role she continued her work to bridge the gap between women’s rights and civil rights, to shrink the diaspora between rich and poor communities in access to governmental resources.
Throughout her life, Bumgardner served in a variety of volunteer leadership roles. In 1972 Governor John West appointed her to the State Reorganization Commission, where she served as secretary, and to the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission. In 1979, she became the Research Director for the Joint Legislative Committee on Aging, chaired by Sen. Hyman Rubin, for the South Carolina General Assembly where she worked until 1997. She served for twelve years on the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, which addressed race relations in the Columbia area, and was elected as the Council’s first female chair in 1987.
A lifelong advocate for education reforms, Bumgardner worked for Community Care, Inc, from 1975-1979. As Director of the Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA) a federal integration grant, Bumgardner helped to organize home visits by bi-racial teams from Benedict and Columbia Colleges to students who needed academic assistance. She also founded the local Meals on Wheels during this time.
Barron has received many honors and awards for her work. She was the recipient of the Christian Action Council Citizenship Award in 1973 and, in 1974, was the first woman recipient of the E.A. McDowell Award for Distinguished Christian Service from the South Carolina Baptist Convention. She received the Outstanding Alumna Award for Public Service from Agnes Scott College in 2002. In May 1982, Barron was the first recipient of the Modjeska Simkins Prize awarded by non-profit Human Endeavor to individuals “whose contributions to society excel in the field of social justice, civil rights, and community improvement.” Of Bumgardner’s work, Simkins herself remarked, “in the hot civil rights times, Keller Bumgardner stood with us ... and she had a lot more to lose.”
More than six decades after joining the League of Women Voters, Keller Barron remains a member of the LWV, where she chairs the Vote 411 initiative in the Columbia area and has served in that role since 2017. An Elder in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., she further continues her work of servant leadership.
“A Simple Matter of Justice” (1978). Texas Archive of the Moving Image,
Bumgardner, Keller. “Remarks from the Modjeska Simkins Endowment Award Ceremony,
May 1, 1982.” Keller Bumgardner Barron Papers, South Carolina Political Collections Repository,
University of South Carolina Libraries.
“Columbia League of Women Voters to celebrate 65 years of civic leadership,”
Columbia Star, November 30, 2012.
Spruill, Marjorie Julian, Littlefield, Valinda W., Johnson, Joan Marie.
“Victoria Eslinger, Keller Bumgardner Barron, Mary Heriot, Tootsie Holland, and Pat Callair:
Champions of Women’s Rights in South Carolina,” in South Carolina Women:
Their Lives and Times, Volume 3 (Athens : University of Georgia Press, 2012).
Bryan, Mary L., “Keller H. Bumgardner, President 1967-1971” in
A History of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, 1920-1976 (pp. 61-67).
Keller Barron Papers (1916-2015), South Carolina Political Collections, University Libraries,
University of South Carolina, “Guide” to Keller Barron, Papers, 13 linear ft.
A basement office in this building served as the headquarters of the League of Women Voters of SC and the Equal Rights Ratification Coalition of South Carolina from 1973-1975. A past-president of the LWV, Keller Bumgardner served as the coordinator for the coalition.