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Women's History Month: Honoring Senator Ellis, Pioneer, Legislator and Cancer Survivor


Cancer survivors need role models. Senator Mary Gordon Ellis (1890-1934) has inspired women in South Carolina for generations. Her ability to juggle cancer and life remains a beacon to all of us.

This year's theme for Women's History Month is "Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women." While many women from the world of cancer illustrate this theme, I choose one out of my personal and social history: Mary Gordon Ellis, the first woman elected to the Senate in South Carolina. She persisted.

Born April 21, 1890, to Alexander McKnight Gordon and Mary Lee Gamble, Mary Henry Gordon grew up in Williamsburg County. She attended Winthrop College a few hours up the train tracks to study to become a schoolteacher. After moving to teach in Jasper County on the other side of the state, she married a farmer, Junius Ellis, and left teaching for a time to work with him on the farm and raise a family.

When her children were older, Ellis began teaching again in a system that included children whose ancestors had been enslaved and children with privileges. These children attended schools that were separate and not equal. In 1924, to seek more power to change things, Ellis ran for superintendent of education, not long after being diagnosed with uterine cancer. She won.

During her time as superintendent, among many acts that sought stronger schools in a flawed system that would take decades to repair, she hired Mary Earle Miller as assistant superintendent. The two women helped to build Rosenwald schools to serve the African-American community. After a request for bus transportation for these children was denied, and politics in her small town got personal, Ellis decided to go on to a bigger stage in politics. She ran for Senate in 1928.

She won, knowing that her health would be a challenge as she took a seat in the Senate in 1929. There is much more to the story of South Carolina's first female senator, of course, a story found in the annals of history. Cancer survivors need to know that during her tenure in the Senate, where she served ably and with honor, she was being treated for cancer. She juggled work, home life and cancer. She persisted.

In an era when uterine cancer was a widespread form of cancer experienced by women, Mary Gordon Ellis would survive her diagnosis for 11 years and accomplish great things. Ellis did not let cancer stop her from living life fully, to the best of her abilities, until she drew her last breath. She did, however, recognize that she should not seek a second term in 1934. She went home to finish her days on earth, still strong and active — as best as she could be – while bedridden.

The death certificate for Ellis notes that she died of complications from uterine cancer or "carcinoma," cancer "held in check with radium," with radium listed as a contributory cause of death. It is not at all surprising that September 8, 1934, the day before she died, she cast an absentee ballot for a local election. In her honor, the town allowed the vote.

"As for going into politics, why not?" Ellis observed in 1931 when she was looking back at her career. "Women meet unpleasant situations in other phases of life, why not in politics?" I have to think that one of those "unpleasant situations" had to involve cancer.

Times have changed since Ellis was treated with a radium, with radiation so much more precise today. Despite cancer, though, and despite a debilitating treatment, she raised her voice. She did not let cancer discriminate against her.

Mary Gordon Ellis was a remarkable woman, wife, sister, mother, teacher, senator and cancer survivor. My cancer journey was made easier by the fact that I grew up hearing stories about her from my mother, Audrey McClary Mitchell, who was proud of her kin from Williamsburg County.

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