This week is the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guaranteed women the right to vote. It was another year before it was ratified by the majority of states.
It took another 10 years for the first woman to be elected to the NC Senate - she was from Jackson County.
Ann McKee Austin of Cashiers has made it her mission to preserve her family’s history. She pulls out old photographs of her grandmother.
“I wanted to make sure to show you these. You saw this one right? That’s what she looked like as a younger woman,” says Austin, who is 73 years old.
Austin is the granddaughter of Gertrude Dills McKee, who was North Carolina’s first woman state senator, elected in 1930.
“So here she is talking to Eleanor Roosevelt - I just think that’s a wonderful picture isn’t it ?”
McKee got into politics after she attended Peace College and married E.L. McKee. She served as a representative in the Democratic delegation before she was elected to the 32nd district senator.
“Well I just want her memory to not be forgotten and the other early leaders from this part of the state too. Sometimes North Carolina is sort of mid-state-centric and you think - ‘Hey we’re up here in the mountains too’” says Austin.
The town of Dillsboro was named for McKee’s father William Dills. The town was founded when the railroad began to run through Jackson County in the 1880s. At the time, the town had about 750 residents.
McKee held leadership positions across the community outside her senate seat. Her household help and freedom in her marriage helped her to be a part of the political sphere:
“Well she had free time for one thing. Most women were working to keep their households going,” explains Austin.
McKee is known for her work in transportation, education and in the founding of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park – that’s where she met Eleanor Roosevelt. Austin loves to the story of the day Eleanor and President Roosevelt came to the Grand Opening of the park.
“It was probably a whole lot of fun for her don’t you think?”
Pam Meister is the director of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.
The center ran an exhibition on McKee in 2011. Meister is already planning for the 100 year anniversary of suffrage in 2020. She says we can learn a lot from women like McKee.
“On the one hand it’s wonderful to understand what those people 100 years ago went through to make sure that we were all able to vote but it’s daunting to think of the work that still needs to be done,” says Meister, who has done extensive research on the suffrage movement.
History often portrays women - especially in rural regions - of having little influence on politics but “Gert” as she was known doesn’t fit that mold, says Meister.
“She was one of those women who was just driven and made everything in their life work. I would have loved to have known her,” explains Meister.
All of McKee’s accomplishments are chronicled in a biography held dear by both Austin and Meister. Joan Wright Ferguson wrote it in 1988 as her master’s thesis at Western Carolina.
Here Meister reads her favorite passage:
“She could join in a backyard ballgame one day and introduce Eleanor Roosevelt the next. She could sell war bonds in Sylva and dedicate a plaque in Gettysburg. She could bake a cake for a church dinner and talk down a senator in Raleigh.”
Even now Austin is inspired by her grandmother. She is helping organize a suffrage celebration in Cashiers in 2020 designed to remind young people to use their right to vote.
“You know I thought – gosh, if she can do all she’s done coming from where she did in this little town then the least I can do is try to do what I can in Cashiers to make it a better place,” explains Austin, who says she is very interested in local politics.
She says that she imagines her grandmother would be thrilled to know that a record number of women were elected to the United States Congress in 2018.
“I think she couldn’t believe it but I think she would be pretty thrilled to know what was going on.”
McKee was reelected to the senate 3 more times. She and her husband also developed the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers. McKee passed away suddenly at the beginning of her fourth term in 1948. She was just 63 years old.