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PATTERSON, Elizabeth J.

PATTERSON, Elizabeth J.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1939– 2018


Representative Elizabeth J. Patterson of South Carolina carved out a political career as a Democrat in a conservative-leaning district, portraying herself as a budget hawk and opponent of tax increases, though not at the expense of providing for working-class needs. The daughter of a powerful politician, Patterson’s long experience in public service, fiscal austerity, and ability to capitalize on the South Carolina GOP’s internal divisions gave her narrow majorities over her opponents. Ultimately, her “middle-of-the-road” approach lost its appeal in a conservative state.1

Elizabeth Johnston was born on November 18, 1939, to Olin DeWitt Talmadge Johnston and Gladys Atkinson Johnston in Columbia, South Carolina. Her father, Olin Johnston, was a political fixture in South Carolina politics, serving in the state house of representatives before being elected governor in 1935. He served a total of six years as governor (1935–1939; 1943–1945), before resigning in his second term after he had won election to the U.S. Senate. Johnston served 20 years in the Senate and was the longtime chairman of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. “We were always together,” Elizabeth Johnston recalled of her political family. “We went to conventions together, the Democratic Party conventions, postal conventions because my dad was chairman of that committee [Post Office and Civil Service].”2 She attended public schools in suburban Maryland but graduated from Spartanburg High School in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1957. In 1961 she received her bachelor’s degree at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. She subsequently studied political science at the University of South Carolina. On April 16, 1967, Elizabeth Johnston married Dwight Patterson, and they raised three children: Dwight, Olin, and Catherine. Elizabeth Patterson, worked as a recruiting officer for the Peace Corps and VISTA, as a Head Start coordinator for the South Carolina Office of Economic Opportunity, and as a staff assistant for South Carolina Representative James Robert Mann from 1969 to 1970 where she helped with administrative and constituent work. Patterson made her debut in elective politics when she won an open seat on the Spartanburg County council in 1975. She served in that capacity for two years, securing a reputation as a fiscal conservative who trimmed county expenses while opposing a tax increase.3 “I got a lot of flak when I ran for county council,” Patterson recalled. “It was sort of interesting, a woman running. And it was countywide, so I had a lot of funny experiences. You know, people talking about a woman running, and ‘Does she know what she’s doing? She should be home with her family,’ and that sort of thing.”4 In 1979 Patterson was elected to the South Carolina senate, where she served through 1986. She worked diligently on the finance committee to reduce and restructure the state budget. She also served on the governor’s task force on hunger and nutrition.

Patterson declared her candidacy for a South Carolina U.S. House seat in 1986, when four-term Republican Representative Carroll Ashmore Campbell Jr. declined renomination in order to run for governor. “Well, first of all it was open seat, and open seats make it easier,” Patterson noted when explaining why she first ran for Congress. “And it was that same old thing, federal government telling the states and local governments what they’ve got to do and then not giving us money. So when I saw it was an open seat, and I saw that nobody really was coming forth to run, I said, ‘You know, I bet I can do this.’”5 The district encompassed the Greenville and Spartanburg area, which had swung Republican in the 1960s. With the exception of the 1976 election, South Carolina had voted for the GOP presidential candidate since 1964, and the district had been a mainstay of conservatives. As a stronghold of evangelical and fundamentalist conservatives, the district increasingly was contested between religiously conservative Republicans and more “commerce-minded” Republicans and moderate to conservative Democrats.6 Patterson campaigned as a fiscal conservative with a social conscience. As a moderate, she supported abortion rights legislation citing that, “the government should not interfere with this most personal decision.”7 She advocated giving aid to the Nicaragua Contra rebels, opposed gun control, and also supported the death penalty. In the general election, Patterson faced Republican William D. Workman III, a former newspaper editor, the mayor of Greenville, and the son of a man who had once opposed Olin Johnston for the Senate.8 Workman had survived a heated GOP primary in which he’d been attacked by religious fundamentalist opponents as a tool of big business. Though polls favored Workman, Patterson skillfully exploited divisions in the GOP between her opponent and religious-right critics by painting him as a friend of corporations and the district’s bluebloods. When Workman charged that Patterson was a free-spending Democrat, she countered with television advertisements that declared, “I’m one of us”—in which she was portrayed as a homemaker and family values candidate.9 Patterson won by a plurality of about 5,400 votes out of more than 130,000 cast, a margin of 51 percent.10 She made headlines as the first woman elected to Congress in her own right from South Carolina. “There was a lot said about it, and the longer I stayed, of course,” Patterson observed, “the more people would mention things. ‘She’s going to be a rising star,’ and all that sort of thing, so we got good press coverage.”11

In subsequent elections, the district remained competitive. Less than a month on the job, Patterson was specifically targeted by the GOP for defeat.12 Although President George H. W. Bush carried the district with 68 percent in the 1988 presidential elections (six points ahead of his statewide percentage), Patterson held on against Knox White, another business-oriented Republican, winning with 52 percent of the vote. During the 1990 midterm elections, because an economic downturn eroded support for President Bush and Patterson cast a popular vote against a federal tax increase, South Carolina voters gave her a third term with her largest margin—61 percent against Republican Terry Haskins, the South Carolina house minority leader who was supported by religious conservatives.13

While in the House, Patterson sat on three committees: Veterans’ Affairs; Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs; and the Select Committee on Hunger. “Veterans at that time, one in nine people in my district was a veteran and so I felt like I was representing them,” Patterson noted.14 From her Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs post, Representative Patterson weighed in on the savings and loan industry crisis. High interest rates in the early 1980s made many of these institutions insolvent. In 1988 alone, more than 190 savings and loan banks failed, and by the time new regulatory practices were in place, the government bailout of the industry through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was estimated to cost more than $160 billion. “We must protect the depositors. We must protect the taxpayers. And finally, we must protect the safety and soundness of our banking industry,” Patterson declared on the House Floor. She argued that uninsured deposits, foreign or domestic, should not be protected at a cost to the bank insurance fund.15 She also opposed a radical overhaul of the FDIC, while allowing it greater power to intervene to close down insolvent banks. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act, passed in 1991, greatly revised the agency’s operations.16

In 1990 Patterson chaired the Conservative Democratic Forum’s Task Force on Budget Reform and eventually voted against the 1990 proposed tax increase (a move which aided her re-election later that year). She also served on the Speaker’s Task Force on Budget Reform, and, in 1991, introduced the Budget Simplification and Reform Act, which would have amended the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 to limit the use of continuing resolutions and expedite the rescission process. Her bill also contained a clause that would have required Members to provide explanatory statements identifying the sponsor and the cost of projects that benefited 10 or fewer people, as a means of combating pork barrel legislation. “Let us spread a little sunshine on Capitol Hill,” Patterson said.17

Patterson also defended the beleaguered textile industry, which, until the 1980s, when it began losing to foreign competition, had been a major employer in her district. She joined the bipartisan Congressional Textile Caucus and, in 1992, Patterson was appointed chair of the panel. Patterson often expressed frustrations felt by her constituents who not only were losing jobs but were unable to “buy American.” Patterson told of one occasion when her daughter went shopping in the district for a simple cotton shirt and had to resort to buying a foreign-made item. “It was made in China . . . where human rights abuses are rampant and where wages are slave wages,” Patterson lamented to colleagues. “At the same time, a shirt factory in my district is closed, a factory where shirts were made of better quality and sold for a cheaper price. Those people cannot buy the clothes that I bought for my children because they are out of work.”18

In the 1992 elections, a year eventually dominated by Democrats and women candidates, Patterson faced a tough campaign against Robert Durden Inglis, a 33-yearold Republican challenger. Inglis, a corporate lawyer and the Greenville County GOP chairman, was highly organized and targeted 11 precincts which he believed would determine the election in the district. He also won the support of the Christian Coalition, which distributed material that accused Patterson of supporting “abortion on demand,” although she had consistently opposed the procedure in all cases except rape, incest, or when the mother’s life was in danger.19 Inglis, meanwhile, depicted Patterson as a liberal who supported abortion rights and as a political tool of banking interests. Inglis pledged to take “not one dime” from political action committees and declared that he would honor a pledge to serve just three terms in the House. He also attacked her for using the informal House “bank” maintained for Members by the Sergeant at Arms (she bounced two checks) by distributing bumper stickers in the form of a check that read, “Bounce Liz.”20 One observer noted that the Patterson campaign was slow to respond: “one problem was that she was so moderate she was hard to define. Nobody thought that she would lose.”21 Patterson eventually did lose by a margin of about 5,600 votes, 50 to 47 percent.

After leaving Congress, Patterson sought the lieutenant governorship of South Carolina in 1994. While she won the closely contested Democratic primary, she eventually lost in the general election. Patterson settled into a teaching job as a political science professor at Spartanburg Methodist College. In 1999 she received an MA in liberal arts from Converse College. Elizabeth Patterson died on November 10, 2018.


1Ronald Smothers, “S. Carolina Experiences Fresh Surge By G.O.P.,” 25 August 1994, New York Times: B7; Megan Rosenfeld, “Anatomy of a Defeat: How a Middle-of-the-Road Incumbent Got Run Over on Election Day,” 12 November 1992, Washington Post: D1.

2“The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (3 April 2017): 2. The interview transcript is available online.

3“Elizabeth Patterson Papers, Biography,” South Carolina Political Collections, University of South Carolina, accessed 29 March 2020, https://archives.; “Patterson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 5.

4“Patterson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 7.

5“Patterson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 11.

6Politics in America, 1994 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993): 1156.

7“Elizabeth Johnston Patterson,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 1992.

8Steven V. Roberts, “Campaigners for House Seats Stress Local Concerns and Efficient Service,” 1 November 1986, New York Times: 8.

9Politics in America, 1990 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1989): 1368; Almanac of American Politics, 1988 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1987): 1087–1088; “Patterson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 12.

10Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

11“Patterson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 25.

12“The Perils of Success,” 1 February 1987, Washington Post: A10.

13“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

14“Patterson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 35.

15Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 1st sess. (31 October 1991): 8793

16Representative Patterson reflected on her time on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, including the “tough issues” the committee tackled during her tenure. “Patterson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 36.

17Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 1st sess. (1 August 1991): 6297.

18Congressional Record, House, 101st Cong., 2nd sess. (2 October 1990): 8603.

19Anthony Lewis, “Tax-Exempt Politics?,” 20 November 1992, New York Times: A15.

20Rosenfeld, “Anatomy of a Defeat.”

21Rosenfeld, “Anatomy of a Defeat.”

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

The University of South Carolina Libraries
South Carolina Political Collections

Columbia, SC
Papers: ca.1930-2010, 18 feet. The collection documents Patterson's service in the South Carolina Senate (Spartanburg County area), 1979-1986, and the U.S. House of Representatives, Fourth District, 1987-1993. Eighteen feet of material, chiefly 1979 to 1992, provides valuable information about Patterson’s public service in South Carolina and Washington, D.C. Public papers primarily document Patterson’s service in the General Assembly and Congress. Personal papers, which make up the bulk of the collection, include material on her campaigns for office, family, civic involvement, and education.
Oral History: July 13, 1995, 28-page transcript. Patterson sat for an interview on July 13, 1995, and discussed her father's career and her early life in Washington, D.C.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Elizabeth J. Patterson" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Hunger
  • House Committee - Veterans' Affairs
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Related Media

Not the First Woman

The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson reflects on the history of women from South Carolina who served in Congress.

The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson, U.S. Representative of South Carolina
Interview recorded April 3, 2017 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Women and South Carolina Politics

The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson talks about the strides women have made in South Carolina.

The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson, U.S. Representative of South Carolina
Interview recorded April 3, 2017 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)