In May of 1919, a South Carolina newspaper published an essay from a woman by the name of Martha Bell. In it, she wrote of the need to allow women throughout the state to be given the right to vote, but she didn’t stop there. She asked what gives a woman influence. Is it beauty, goodness, tact, talent, pleasant manners, or social position? Looking back almost 100 years, it’s difficult to understand the circumstances that motivated a woman from the small community of Edgefield, S.C., to speak out on not only the basic rights denied to women at the time, but the level of inequality between the sexes. It’s even more difficult when you realize that a great many of the issues Bell spoke out about at the time are issues women still face to this day.
Appearing in the May 27, 1919, edition of the Edgefield Advertiser, a community paper that operates to this day and credits itself as the oldest newspaper in South Carolina, Bell’s plea for equality ran under the headline “Prize Essay on ‘Woman Suffrage,’ Published by Request.” Stretched out across three columns, Bell presented her case, while refuting the key talking points of her detractors.
“In all the factors that tend to handicap the progress of society, women form a minority, whereas, in churches, schools, and all organizations working for the uplift of humanity, women are in the majority,” Bell wrote. “Do you know of any sound, logical reason why women should not have the vote? You can have no such reasons, for they do not exist.”
For the women of South Carolina, the right to vote would come in 1920. Looking back, you can say Bell won her battle, but she was fighting for much more. She was arguing for a society where women have the ability to hold major political office, representing themselves. And Bell did this before she even had the right to vote.
“But a man is by nature too different from a woman to be able to represent her. Whatever his good will be, he cannot fully put himself in a woman’s place and look at things exactly from her point of view,” she wrote. “Unless men and women should ever become alike, women must either go unrepresented or represent themselves.”
So how far have we come in almost a century? According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, South Carolina ranks 12th nationwide in the percentage of women registered to vote, but the Palmetto State sits at 44th when it comes to women in elected office. The Center for American Women in Politics ranks South Carolina in the bottom 10 among U.S. states, with women only accounting for 14 percent of the state legislature. But moving on from political office, Bell takes her argument to a surprising place for a woman writing in 1919 — equal pay.
“A man has all the advantage over a woman. A man and a woman can hold the same position in business, and the man will at least get one-fourth more salary than the woman and anyone with any reason at all knows that this isn’t fair,” she wrote. “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man towards woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
So how much progress has been made on this front since Bell wrote these words in 1919? She says men likely earn one-fourth more in wages than a woman performing the same job, but what do those numbers look like today? According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women working full-time, year-round in South Carolina earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man earns working in a similar position. Based on the rate of progress measured since 1959, it is projected that women in South Carolina will not see equal pay until 2094 if current trends continue. That’s a full 175 years after Bell first called out this problem.
Reading through Bell’s essay, one starts to wonder who this woman was who decided to make a very public statement on the troubles facing women. The newspaper provides no other biographical information on Bell, just her name and opinions. A look through other issues of the Edgefield Advertiser from that time and historical documents at the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society point to two possible authors — both cousins who shared the name Martha and were born around the turn of the century. They were the grandchildren of James Milton Bell, an educator born in 1827 who taught white children during the day and slave children at night. Two of Bell’s sons would go on to raise a daughter by the name of Martha. One, born in December of 1899, went on to graduate from Erskine College and earn a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina. She was a longtime educator, who married Frank Thompson Arnold in 1947 to become Martha B. Arnold. She lived to the age of 90.
The other possible author of the essay is Martha Bell, born in 1902 to James and Etta Bell. She is described as having beautiful, red hair and an infectious smile. Bell never married, instead dedicating her life to serving students. A graduate of Summerland College in Batesburg and Newberry College, she worked as a teacher until she was awarded the position of attendance officer in the Edgefield County Public School system. In addition to monitoring attendance, Bell was responsible for assessing the possible health problems of students. She was also a Sunday school teacher, and when her father stepped down as Sunday school superintendant at their church, she was elected to the position. Bell held that office until her death in 1976.
While it’s likely that one of these women penned the impassioned argument for equality that ran in the Advertiser almost 100 years ago, there’s no clear indication as to which one was the true author. But regardless of which of the two Marthas wrote the piece, it is certain that they both faced the same problems as all women during that time. And unfortunately, the inequalities described by the author still linger — even a century after they were pointed out in the pages of a rural South Carolina newspaper.