By Constance Curry
Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, p. 32
Harriet Keyserling. Against the Tide: One Woman’s Political Struggle. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1998.
In 1944, Harriet Keyserling left New York City and moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, with her husband Herbert, a physician and native son. While raising their four children, she volunteered for local projects in education, health, and the arts and organized a chapter of the League of Women Voters. Thirty years later, in 1974, she jumped, or maybe waded, into political waters. She was a woman, a yankee in a southern world, and Jewish in a predominantly Christian society. She describes herself as “shy, not great at small talk, and not even assertive, much less aggressive.”
After her 1974 election and two-year service on the Beaufort County Council–the first woman–she won a seat as representative to the South Carolina General Assembly. She remained sixteen years until her retirement in 1992. Those years were a transition time for many southern state governments. Richard W. Riley, who wrote the Foreword for the book, was governor of South Carolina during that period and points out that he “plunged headfirst into the deep water of change, of reform, of shifting emphasis from power politics to the power of ideas.”
Keyserling was right beside him, and the heart of her very personal memoir is an insider’s view of the workings of the General Assembly. She brings the story to life by introducing the “Crazy Caucus,” the group that attracted her from the beginning–“bright, progressive funny and very energetic.” Their major opponents were the “Fat and Uglies,” a group of young conservative representatives and the “old guard” who often controlled leadership positions through the traditional seniority systems.
The “Crazy Caucus” took on reforms on every level–health, safety, education and the arts. Keyserling was recognized for her leadership in the debates on filibustering and she facilitated the 1982 passage of a bill with rules changes, one of which helped invoke cloture on filibusters. She feels sure that the rules changes helped pass controversial legislation on education improvement, living wills, accommodations taxes, court reform and solid waste and energy policies.
In 1992, Keyserling decided it was time to leave the legislature. Many members of the “Crazy Caucus” were gone, and she describes the changes that were draining her spirit, energy and good health: “We didn’t listen to each other and we didn’t respect each other. The civility was gone and was replaced by a tense, acrimonious confrontational atmosphere.” It was a far cry from the era of exciting and hopeful days of change and reform described by Riley. Fortunately, her son Billy won that seat and is a leader is his own right.
Since her retirement, Keyserling has discovered that there is indeed life after being a legislator and devotes time to environmental and arts issues, her family, and her friends. She is amused by her transition from the shy, non-aggressive woman of earlier days to a “new persona” that incorporates passion on certain issues and people and little fear of confrontation. “I want more women to have power,” she reflects, “to build their egos, to become passionate, to get involved in making this a better state and a healthier nation.” But this book is not just a call to women to join in political struggles. It is an inspiration on another level–as proof that one courageous person can bring about change in the face of overwhelming odds.
Constance Curry lives and writes in Atlanta. She is co-author of, Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning, just published by the University Press of Mississippi.