Clelia McGowan's Journey: From the Fires of War to a Life of Social Activism

Article excerpt

BRIDGING THE SOCIETAL CONVENTIONS PLACED UPON southern women during the Victorian age, the life story of Clelia Peronneau Mathewes McGowan offers historians a prism through which to view upper-middle class women who, despite being expected to embody the "lady on the pedestal" of the Lost Cause, desired involvement in civic causes beyond their homes and families. Women like McGowan expanded their circle of influence from the domestic sphere into the public square by forming organizations that were dedicated to personal, religious, and civic improvement. Through these associations, southern club women achieved individuality, independence, and, in McGowan's case, real political power and influence while reshaping the region as it emerged from the ravages of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Beginning with the unique experiences of her formative years, this paper examines McGowan's career as a social activist, including her willingness to seek and accept several public offices that brought her into close contact with the black community. Eventually, McGowan would participate in and lead South Carolina's Committee on Interracial Cooperation, a progressive, biracial group that sought to ameliorate the social and political conditions facing southern blacks in the first decades of the twentieth century.


Two week-old Clelia, her mother Eliza Peronneau Mathewes, and a servant girl were among the thousands of Charlestonians refugeed in Columbia when General William T. Sherman's army occupied the state capital in February 1865. Union troops entered their room at a boarding house opposite the campus of South Carolina College, plundered the family silver that Mrs. Mathewes had spirited away from Charleston, and forced the two frightened women and baby into the street. As fire broke out and the city burned around them, Mrs. Mathewes became separated from her servant and infant, and it was only through the good will of a Union officer that the threesome was reunited. After the war ended several months later, the family traveled by covered wagon to Anderson to join other refugeed Peronneau relatives. Their final destination was Clelia's paternal grandfather's plantation, Acoa, in the hills of Habersham County, Georgia. John Raven Mathewes built the plantation house in 1835, and the family initially used it as a retreat to escape the lowcountry summers. After the war Acoa became their permanent residence.1

First recounted by her mother to a friend living in Sweden, this vivid account of war, fire, and flight also appeared in McGowan's sentimental 1920s autobiography. Her memoirs offer a picturesque view of life on her family's plantation, but also provide ample evidence that their wealth had greatly diminished. With a clear understanding of both the times and her own circumstances, McGowan noted in the memoirs that "[f]amily background and circumstances had much bearing on my life."

McGowan's earliest ancestors in America arrived in Massachusetts in 1643, and others obtained land on South Carolina's St. Helena Island by 1705. Among her distant New England relatives was Mary Coffin Starbuck, whose civic life in the 170Os seemed to mirror that of McGowan's two hundred years later: "a most extraordinary woman, participating in the practical duties and responsibilities of public gatherings and town meetings, on which occasions her words were always listened to with marked respect."2

While it may be difficult to establish the influence of a distant female forebear on McGowan's social activism in twentieth century South Carolina, there is one woman whose effect upon her mother, and subsequently herself, is easily proved. McGowan's mother, Eliza Peronneau, was a member of a prominent Huguenot family and grew up in Charleston society. She matriculated at Limestone College and there was exposed to modern views of womanhood and equal rights by her Swedish teacher, Rosalie Roos, who later became the family's governess. …