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The Woman's Touch


March is National Women's History Month. Charleston and the Lowcountry can claim a significant place in the list of pioneering women who shaped the region's social, cultural and agricultural heritage. From Septima Clark's tireless campaigning for equality during the civil rights era, to the Charleston-born Pollitzer sisters' efforts toward women's suffrage, and the Grimke sisters' outspoken opposition to the slave economy during the Civil War period, women have been at the forefront of historically significant changes in in Lowcountry life.

The ruins of Comingtee's plantation house.

Lesser known are women who lived during the Colonial and Revolutionary War years, all the way back to the 17th-century, when Affra Harleston arrived in the Lowcountry from England in 1669. With her family's fortune ruined during the English Civil War, Affra took ship for the Carolinas with a two-year indentured labor contract in Charleston, on the completion of which she was promised one hundred acres of land. A budding shipboard romance with John Coming resulted in marriage and, on her release from her contract, a plantation along the Cooper River which the couple named Comingtee. By the time of Coming's death in 1694, the couple had acquired over 700 acres along the river, part of which was donated for the growing new city of Charles Towne, and which would eventually become the city's Harleston Village neighborhood. Before her own death in 1698, Affra had moved into town, built a house at Wentworth and Philips streets and donated seventeen acres to St. Philip's Church, the beginning of the church's downtown property holdings.

Johnston's portrait of Henriette Chastaigne (courtesy Gibbes Museum)

Charleston was home to America's first professional female artist, Henrietta Dering Johnston, who arrived in Charleston from Britain with her clergyman husband in 1706. The couple struggled financially, leading Henrietta to revive an earlier talent for drawing and painting and to build a reputation for society portraits done in pastel. Her commissions took her as far north at New York and saved the couple from penury. She and her husband are buried in the cemetery of St. Michael's Church downtown.

Martha Logan, early American botanist

Martha Daniell Logan, born in 1704 in St.Thomas Parish just outside Charleston, was the country's first female botanist, collecting and exchanging plants and seeds native to the Lowcountry with colleagues in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the colonies. By 1751, she was writing one of the nation's first horticultural columns, The Gardener's Kalendar, for the South Carolina Gazette.

Much of this history has been documented by the city's Preservation Society, itself founded by a woman, Susan Pringle Frost, in 1920 as the Society For The Preservation Of Old Dwellings. And as historian Harlan Greene once pointed out, even the city's official seal and motto, "She guards her buildings, customs and her laws," acknowledges Charleston's debt to her female pioneers.

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