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Sarah Leverette broke the glass ceiling before there was one

By: Matt Chaney//April 24, 2018

Sarah Leverette broke the glass ceiling before there was one

By: Matt Chaney//April 24, 2018

Image courtesy of USC School of Law
Image courtesy of USC School of Law

There weren’t many jobs available when Sarah Leverette entered the legal profession in South Carolina in 1943. More specifically, there weren’t many jobs available to her, a woman.

“My comment on that has always been I knew the door was closed, but I didn’t know it was locked,” Leverette said over the phone in a recent interview.

When Leverette graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law nearly 75 years ago, she was only the third female who had ever done so. But, on April 19, after all these years, Leverette returned to her alma mater to receive a Compleat Lawyer Award.

“This is the most precious award I can think of for any lawyer,” Leverette said prior to the event. “It’s done primarily by the alumni … To me, I have to say the Compleat Lawyer just capped everything, I’m prouder of that than almost every award I’ve ever received.”

But this is just one of many accomplishments that the nonagenarian has achieved in her lifetime. To name a few, she headed the USC School of Law library for 25 years and was the first female faculty member at the school while also teaching legal writing, she was a commissioner on the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission, a board member on the South Carolina League of Women Voters and the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association and, after retiring, she became a real estate agent, which she has continued to do until recent health issues have slowed her at the age of 98.

She said that a friend recently asked her if they should go ahead and plan her 100th birthday party, to which she responded to go ahead, she’ll be there.

Women’s Rights

Of her many accomplishments, Leverette said she is most proud of the gradual change that has occurred in the place of women in the field of law and in the legal process that she has seen during her life.

“I have always had a strong feeling of justice and fairness and legal equality,” Leverette said. “To me, that was one of the biggest problems we were having in politics and everywhere else: Women were not a part of the decisive factor, and they’re still not really, but today we’ve done something new. We’ve made an issue out of it … Once you do that, you’ve got your feet on the battlefield.”

In the 1960s, Leverette fought along with the other members of the SC League of Women Voters for the right for women to serve on juries in South Carolina. In 1967, they succeeded in getting the law changed.

“Women on juries was obvious,” she said. “We appeared before one of the commissions considering the rule and spoke about discrimination and one committee member said they couldn’t do it because there weren’t bathrooms for women and I said, ‘Well, put them in.’”

Leverette said it took years of lobbying and connecting with people on a personal basis to get that rule changed, but when it comes to women’s issues in general, she feels there is still much more work to be done. She stressed the importance of having more women in positions of political power and closing the wage gap.

“That’s one thing I hope we will always keep working on,” she said. “If you’re not going to include over half the population, you really are not being fair. You’re not really democratic.”

USC Law Library

Aside from her work in women’s rights and politics, Leverette had a great deal of influence in her time as a research and writing instructor and head of the USC School of Law library.

“The most productive work I did was working with the law school,” Leverette said. “I always enjoyed legal writing … because of my belief that what I was teaching was … one of the biggest requirements for graduates to practice law: The ability to express what you’ve already learned. I tried to stress to my students that you can know all the law in the world, but if you don’t know how to put it into words, you’re not going to do anything with it.”

In her book about the history of female lawyers in South Carolina, “Portia Steps Up to the Bar: The First Women Lawyers of South Carolina,” Ruth Cupp said that Leverette was one of the most influential people on legal writing in the state in the 20th century.

“Sarah taught the course to every law student at the University of South Carolina for a quarter of the century,” Cupp wrote in her book.

Former South Carolina governor Ernest “Fritz” Hollings thanked Leverette in the preface to his book “Making Governments Work,” describing the lengths she went to in an effort to help him when he entered the law school after three years serving overseas in the military.

“I’ll never forget Sarah Leverette, the librarian who came early every morning during the Christmas holidays and opened the law library so I could work,” he wrote.

According to a profile written and published by the SC Progressive Network Education Fund in 2016, Hollings is but one of the numerous prominent politicians, judges and lawyers that Leverette taught in law school. Others include former Gov. Richard Riley, former Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, U.S. District Judge Solomon Blatt Jr., former Gov. Robert McNair, former Gov. John West, former South Carolina Bar President I.S. Leevy Johnson and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, the first woman to hold that position.

“Those students respected me and I felt like I was in the situation where I belonged,” she said.

What makes Sarah special

After 98 years, Leverette still takes joy in simple things. She lights up talking about state and national politics and even more when talking about the USC women’s basketball team.

“I met Dawn Staley and got my picture taken with her and a basketball from her with all the signatures of the last two teams. I have it in my office space … I’m so proud of it, I want to invite people in and have them pay me five dollars to look at it,” she said with glee over the phone.

Her vim and vigor are contagious, even though she overcame a recent bout with an illness and spent the past week filing her taxes.

Herbert Hartsook, the current director of Special Collections at the University of South Carolina library, told the Progressive Network that Leverette’s personality defies her age.

“She is still a lifelong learner, still as involved today as she would be as a young woman, and it’s really inspirational to be around her,” Hartsook said.

Despite the limited job options she faced upon graduating from school in the early 1940s, Leverette persevered and carved out a life working in law for herself. Reflecting, she said that much of her life was devoted to causes greater than herself.

“My inspiration for law school had to do with my belief that I have that I’m not the future. Our young people are the future. We’re responsible for passing on what we think is valuable … because we’re not going to be here,” Leverette said.

But she said that reflection can only take a person so far. Paraphrasing a friend from her church in Columbia, Leverette put it simply.

“I don’t look back. I’m not going that way.”

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