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Columbia City of Women Honoree

M. Malissa Burnette

M. Malissa Burnette, 1970s. Image courtesy The State Newspaper Photograph Archive, Richland Library

But what we really need is more public awareness of the fact that wife-beating does go on right here. There’s no way to find out exactly how much it goes on, but I think if we knew we’d be astounded. People don’t want to recognize it. But we’ve got to recognize it so we can do something about it.
-Malissa Burnette, The Columbia Record, October 13, 1976

In October 1976, Columbia NOW (National Organization for Women) President Malissa Burnette went public with the data she’d spent the previous summer collecting. Taken from police records, interviews with incarcerated women, and wives living in abusive marriages, instances of “wife-beating,” were occurring nearly every day in Columbia, despite being drastically underreported. Furthermore, abusive husbands were not confined to one social class or race—these were your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers. According to Columbia NOW’s next newsletter, the response from women in particular was overwhelming—many had found the courage to speak out after reading the article and realizing they weren’t alone. Domestic violence would become one of Burnette’s signature causes, and battling the circumstances forcing women to stay in abusive marriage—particularly economic ones—would become the centerpiece of her legal career.

Mary Malissa Burnette was born in Morven, North Carolina, in 1950. Her family moved from Ohio to Columbia in 1968, and after a year at Winthrop College, Burnette enrolled at the University of South Carolina (UofSC). The early 1970s proved to be a “confusing” and “frightening” time at the university. According to Burnette, the Kent State massacre, anti-Vietnam war protests, and a rampant drug culture meant that “a lot of students were torn in many directions.” Sexism and objectification of women were normal as well, and female faculty uncommon. Many women, like Burnette, could graduate having never had a female professor or role model for professional career advice.

After graduation, Burnette took a job as a correctional officer at Harbison, the state’s only women’s prison, and her experiences in that role solidified her career trajectory. Somewhat fortuitously, the warden made Burnette the principal of the prison’s school, and this allowed her to establish deeper ties with incarcerated women. She quickly discovered that “women in prison were taught to cook and sew. Most of them were single mothers, a lot of them were victims of domestic violence and were there for defending themselves.” This was in stark contrast to incarcerated men elsewhere, who had opportunities to take classes at UofSC and learn trade professions that would help them secure well-paying jobs after finishing their sentences.

Burnette attended the University of South Carolina School of Law at the beginning of a shift in the school’s culture in which women finally comprised more than just a few spots in each class. Still, some male classmates were “openly hostile” to women, and Burnette had no female mentors in the classroom. Instead she found that leadership and comradery elsewhere, through groups like National Organization for Women (NOW). The Columbia chapter met regularly at the YWCA to listen to speakers and political candidates and discuss current issues. When Columbia NOW elected Burnette president in 1976, domestic violence was identified as a key issue. Leaning in to the reality that women who could not support themselves or their children could not escape dangerous marriages, Burnette spoke to women at local colleges about the importance of becoming economically self-sufficient even as Columbia NOW partnered with the League of Women Voters to advocate for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

In 1977, Burnette served as a delegate to the International Women’s Year conference in Houston. When asked to share her thoughts on why women’s equality was vital, she pointed to her research on battered women and rape, and explained how her thinking continued to evolve:

Well, I believe it was when, after I graduated from college and really got out into the—into the working world, I realized that I was a very powerless person and that part of it was due to my sex. And I just felt helpless, and I wondered what I could do about it. And the first thing I did was to go to law school, but even having graduated from law school now, I see that is not enough, that we’re going to have to work through the legislatures to—to ensure that women have equality.
–M. Malissa Burnette, Interview, June 10-11, 1977

After working in the state’s Manpower Division, Burnette served as chief of staff to Lieutenant Governor Nancy Stevenson; in that role she continued to advocate for and informally advise on potential domestic violence legislation. In 1978, the YWCA again surveyed Columbia women, this time finding that local women’s organizations alone were receiving more than 150 requests a month for emergency shelter. By 1980, the YWCA and Junior League had partnered to form SisterCare, which offered temporary housing, employment assistance, and counseling for battered women.

Although Burnette left government to form a private firm with Richard Gergel in 1983, she continued to advocate for domestic violence legislation. In 1984, she helped organize a Take Back the Night march from the YWCA to raise awareness for the Protection from Domestic Abuse Act, which passed later that year. Burnette noted it was the “first recognition that violence between two adults in the home is a crime. It used to be that the victim (usually the woman) had to leave the home. However, now the offender must leave.”

Despite this legislative victory, a constitutional guarantee of equal rights for women would not be realized because the ERA remained stalled in the State House and nationally. According to NOW’s 1986 The State-by-State Guide to Women’s Legal Rights, South Carolina was “dead last” based on an examination of statutory law across many areas. Burnette chose to focus her private practice career on employment law, where she could best help women fight economic discrimination and sexual harassment in court, despite the fact that, “Most lawyers are scared to death of doing this work.”

Educate yourself to earn a living. Take care of yourself and your family—and do that well so you can do good works pro-bono, if possible. Do things that will help a lot of people; in other words, challenge laws that hurt people, and change those.
-M. Malissa Burnette, August 6, 2021

In the decades since she first spoke out about the epidemic of violence against women, Burnette has served as council on several groundbreaking civil rights cases, most notably on behalf of Tara Bailey, who won the right to play football at Gaffney’s public high school; of Shannon Faulkner and Nancy Mellette, who won the right for women to enroll in state-supported military colleges; and of Colleen Condon and Nichols Bleckley, who brought marriage equality to South Carolina months before the US Supreme Court’s ruling. In 2017, she co-founded the all-women firm Burnette, Shutt & McDaniel.

Selected References:

Ashley, Dottie. “Dead last,” State (Columbia, SC), March 1, 1987. Burnette,
M. Malissa, interview with Katharine Allen, August 6, 2021. Burnette,
M. Malissa, interview with Rachael Myers. June 10-11, 1971. 1977
International Women’s Year Oral History Collection, SC 568. Accessed on August 13, 2021:
Bruton, Malie. “Battered Wife: Dark Side of Marriage,” Columbia Record (Columbia, SC), October 13, 1976.

M. Malissa Burnette

During M. Malissa Burnette’s tenure as president, Columbia NOW (National Organization for Women) met monthly at the YWCA. Influenced by Burnette’s early research on domestic violence, the YWCA took steps in 1980 to create SisterCare, a program to help battered spouses and their at-risk children.

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