Elizabeth Johnston Patterson: Following a Family Tradition

S.C. Political Collections Celebrates Congress Week

South Carolina Political Collections is a proud member of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress (ACSC). ACSC is sponsoring its fifth annual Congress Week, April 1 – 7, with the theme “The People’s Branch.” This is the first of five posts celebrating Congress Week

“Sometimes a colleague is startled to walk in, find that the senator is temporarily absent but that Lizzie is in his place, her feet up on the desk.”                                                                                                          —Life, 1949


Liz Patterson as a child in Washington

“Lizzie”—Gladys Elizabeth Johnston—was the daughter of South Carolina’s Olin D. Johnston, who served in the United States Senate from 1945 until his death in 1965. Raised in a family committed to public service, she eventually grew up to earn her own desk on Capitol Hill. She was the first woman from South Carolina to be elected to a full term in Congress, and went on to serve for three terms, from 1987 to 1993.

Patterson was born November 18, 1939, in Columbia, South Carolina. She shared a birthday with both her father and her older sister, Sallie. Her father had recently completed a term as governor of South Carolina; he would be elected again in 1942, before stepping down in 1945 to ascend to the Senate. As a result, Patterson spent much of her childhood in and around Washington, D.C., and as a nine-year-old, attracted the attention of a writer for Life magazine for her roller-skating around the Capitol building.

Patterson and Mann

Liz Patterson and Congressman James Mann speak with a constituent

As a young adult, Patterson became active in politics in her own right, helping manage what turned out to be her father’s last campaign for the Senate in 1962, as well as working in the 1964 campaign of President Lyndon Johnson, taking a turn aboard the “Lady Bird Special” campaign train. Starting in 1966, she worked in Columbia as part of the state Office of Economic Opportunity, helping oversee VISTA and Head Start. From there, Patterson’s dedication to public service led her to work for Congressman James L. Mann, to serve as a Spartanburg County Councilwoman, and to a seat in the state Senate.

In 1986, she decided to run for the Fourth District’s Congressional seat. Throwing her hat into the ring, she noted, “My family taught me that our world is only as good as you make it, and one of the ways to make it better is to participate in the political process.” She was elected, and went on to serve in that role until 1993. Her legislative interests included banking policy, the budget, veterans’ benefits, and other issues affecting the Upstate, such as the Southern Connector highway and the textile industry.

Following her political career, Patterson worked as director of Continuing Education at Converse College, as well as teaching classes at Spartanburg Methodist College, where her father began his education while working in the mills.

Liz Patterson

Patterson stands with Governor Dick Riley during her 1986 announcement for Congress

Reflecting on her career in 2003, Patterson noted, “Our father used to say that he believed one of his daughters would marry a man who would become governor someday…  Opportunities for women opened up in politics after he died, and I think he would have been pleased with my political career.”

Patterson’s papers, now open for research, include eighteen feet of material, chiefly 1979 to 1992, documenting her public service as well as her campaigns for office. Audiovisual materials include numerous family and other photographs, as well as television and radio campaign ads.

By Dorothy Walker

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