Columbia City of Women Honoree
Victoria L. Eslinger
Image courtesy The State Newspaper Photograph Collection, Richland Library
On May 12, 1971, The Gamecock student newspaper published an article by first-year law school student Victoria “Vickie” L. Eslinger. In it, she describes the plight of women in a pre-Roe v. Wade world. Although abortion was legal in New York, many women were being scammed by illegitimate agencies who had no connection to safe clinics and trained doctors. Out of money and options, these women were turning to illegal abortion “butchers” with devastating, and even fatal consequences. Eslinger, though, had a solution: a hotline, where volunteers connected anonymous callers to women’s health information. This referral service, which according to Eslinger “did not counsel or solicit, condemn or condone,” was the only one of its kind in South Carolina. It helped women, not just students, across the state. It was controversial at the time, but then, so was Eslinger. A staunch feminist, she was also fighting for women’s equality in the courts.
Victoria LaMotte Eslinger was born December 30, 1947, to Marguerite LaMotte and Vassar Eslinger. Although she grew up primarily in Columbia, she spent time in her mother’s native France, and this cosmopolitan exposure led her to question the ongoing segregation in South Carolina institutions. Eslinger’s questioning nature came from both her parents, who instilled in her the ability to think independently, if not always liberally:
…I entered the University of Georgia as really a raging conservative who just parroted what I heard, and I came out somebody….somebody I like to think that thinks through things and who rejected the status quo and who learned that if you're going to be a leader, not everybody's going to like you, so get over it.
You're either going to fix it or you're going to be sweet and hope everybody loves you, which really wasn't the path I thought I would choose. I thought that if you saw an injustice it needed to be fixed. And I do think I learned that from my parents.
Eslinger spent a year at the University of Georgia and a year abroad in France before entering the University of South Carolina in 1967. She was immediately appalled at the sexism that permeated the school. For example, women could not wear slacks on campus, unless they were under a “non-transparent raincoat.” Yet these same women were celebrated for participating in the annual Miss Venus pageant, which saw them parade around in short shorts, high heels, and paper bags on their heads.
During Eslinger’s senior year, she served as president of the University Union, which brought comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory to campus. In a letter to university president Thomas Jones, she berated him and other university leaders for failing to attend Gregory’s lecture as they had other, less controversial, programs. Eslinger felt that if the administration was “truly interested ...they would have gone to the lecture to try and see student reactions and opinions, and they would have proved their interest.” When Eslinger returned for law school the next fall, she translated her somewhat contentious relationship with Jones into one that instituted change.
After watching a close friend nearly die from a botched abortion, Eslinger approached Jones with the idea for the hotline, arguing that the infirmary was not meeting the needs of woman students. She requested a room in the Russell House to set up phone lines and train people and to purchase copies of the new book Our Bodies, Ourselves to distribute. The hotline would offer counseling if requested, but more importantly, it would offer information on sexual and reproductive health. Jones agreed, and Hotline launched in 1971. Before the passage of Roe v. Wade, the group referred 1,500 women to legal, out-of-state clinics, likely saving many lives.
Months before launching Hotline, Eslinger applied to be a Senate page, a sought-after position for law school students in the South Carolina state legislature. After securing sponsorship from four senators, she approached Senate Clerk Lovick Thomas with her application. Thomas, upon receiving it, patted her on the head, and replied: “But, you’re a girl.” Eslinger secured the ACLU’s help in filing suit. In response, the South Carolina Senate passed Resolution S.525, which allowed women to serve as “clerical assistants” and “committee attendants” but not as “Senate pages,” because of the dangerous tasks, such as visiting the State House at night, that the page position entailed. In response, Eslinger’s attorneys suggested: “the Senate need not fear for her safety because she has a brown belt in karate.” Eslinger eventually won on appeal in 1973, just months before her law school graduation.
After law school, Eslinger took a job at Legal Aid Services. In the early 1970s, legal aid attorneys could take any type of case, including fee-generating ones, if two other lawyers turned it down. Eslinger took employment and civil rights cases, including changing birth certificates for transgender women.
In 1977, Eslinger formed Eslinger & Knowles with Lucy Knowles, South Carolina’s first all-female law firm. The duo, who had previously had a difficult time being hired at another firm due to their gender, adopted the attitude that “we wanted to do the kind of cases we wanted to do.” One of these cases was representing professors in the suit University of South Carolina v. Batson et al, which successfully invalidated the lowering of the university’s retirement age from 70 to 65. The firm did so in style. According to Eslinger, “We had pink blue backs instead of blue backs. [We] used to have to cover your pleadings with blue papers, and we decided we would use pink ones so we could find ours at the courthouse.”
From 1979 until 1983, Eslinger worked as an attorney based in Paris. She returned home to join the firm Nexsen Pruet, where she remains today. When asked by Historic Columbia what advice she would offer to young women today, she offered this:
"Learn to be a leader and don't care if people don't like you. The people you care about, whether or not they like you, are the people you love and you interact with every day. Otherwise you've got to be able to stand up for your principles. And the other thing I would tell them is what I tell all the young law students I talk to. I hope that you will live your life in such a way that every morning when your feet hit the floor, Satan shudders and says 'Oh crap. She's awake.'"
- Victoria L. Eslinger
SHE DID and DOES break barriers, so that we can all pursue our dreams.
Designed by Hamby & Rorke in 1913, this Tudor style residence served as the office of the all-female law firm Eslinger & Knowles, led by Victoria L. Eslinger and Lucy Knowles, from 1977 until 1979. It was demolished in the late 1980s.