20th Century Leaders

Mary Gordon Ellis

Credit: Office of the SC Senate; Legislative Printing, Information & Technology Systems

Mary Gordon Ellis (1890-1934). a native of Gourdin, S.C., was the first woman elected to the South Carolina State Legislature.

Ellis was graduated from Winthrop College in 1913 and took a teacher/principal position at Gillisonville, S.C. In 1924 she was appointed superintendent of schools for Jasper County. She instituted a school bus transportation system so that she could close one-room rural schools and allow students to receive improved education at centralized schools. Ellis mandated that teachers become involved in professional development through teacher-training programs. When Ellis sought to improve African American schools by purchasing new textbooks and hiring a college graduate to supervise Jasper County’s black schools, she was fired.

In 1928 she entered the state Senate race. She narrowly defeated her opponent, who had led the opposition to her education initiatives in Jasper County for African-Americans. As a state senator, Ellis served on various committees including those covering education, the military, natural resources, and penitentiaries. In 1933 she was diagnosed with cancer and was forced to retire in 1934. She died later that year.

In 1995, a Senate bill was passed that commissioned a portrait of Mrs. Ellis for the Senate Chambers.