Serendipitous is a word that could be used to describe the unique story behind the first women who served as mayors in East Cooper. The first was born the same week that women achieved the right to vote. The second was born on the first woman’s thirty-fifth birthday. And the third watched the second woman grow up. Whether you call it coincidence, fate or luck, the lives of these three women seemed destined to intertwine.
Mayors Carmen Bunch of Isle of Palms, 1986-2002; Cheryll Woods-Flowers of Mount Pleasant, 1992-2000; and Kathleen Cantwell of Sullivan’s Island, 1991-1992; forged a bond based on their shared experiences as leaders. By serving simultaneously as the first women at the helm of these East Cooper municipal governments, the group made history.
The story begins with the birth of Carmen Ramirez in New York City, mere days before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. A timely coincidence? Perhaps. Like many women of her day, her first job after finishing high school was as a clerical worker. But unlike most, she joined the United States Navy during World War II – against her parents’ wishes. Since Ramirez could speak three languages – Dutch, Spanish and English – the Navy put her to work interpreting and translating communications, some top secret, between Allied Forces. While stationed in Norfolk, Ramirez met another sailor, Jack Bunch, whom she would later marry. After the war, the couple moved to the Isle of Palms, Jack’s hometown, and ran his family’s restaurant. She later had a 22-year career as a recreation specialist at the Charleston Naval Shipyard, the biggest employer in the Charleston area.
Bunch became interested in civic affairs when Isle of Palms was incorporated in 1953. She attended City Council meetings and ran for mayor in 1981. She lost to the incumbent but would win the next mayoral election after she had served four years on city council. So began her 16-year tenure as the city’s only female mayor thus far.
Bunch’s moxie was put to the test in a big way when Hurricane Hugo blasted the island in 1989. With such widespread devastation, roads on the island were impassible, and about 95% of the homes were destroyed or rendered unsafe. Even the Ben Sawyer Bridge, the only route onto the island at the time, was badly damaged and could not be used. Because nearly all residents had evacuated before the storm, Bunch was concerned that looters would somehow make their way to the island. And some did. So, with the approval of former Gov. Carroll Campbell, martial law was imposed, and only civil authorities were allowed to enter the island. That meant anyone who left before the storm was not able to return for days, even those who were full-time residents. This decision caused anger and frustration among many who were anxious to assess damage to their homes and property. Many also questioned whether it was the best move for Bunch’s political future. Regardless, she was determined that it was the right thing to do. Even with the swell of controversy surrounding her decision, she was re-elected mayor and eventually served four consecutive terms in all. She died in 2014, leaving behind a strong legacy.
Cheryll Woods-Flowers, a Charleston area native, shared Bunch’s birthday. Another coincidence? Perhaps. She broke into Mount Pleasant politics when she was elected to Town Council in 1986. Six years later, she was elected mayor and served two consecutive terms. After leaving office, Woods-Flowers was appointed to the town’s planning board. In Woods-Flowers’ words, “I’ve sat in every seat that’s controversial!”
Her years in municipal government taught her how important it is to help people. Woods-Flowers became an advocate for Alzheimer’s patients and their families while experiencing the trauma of her father’s struggle with the disease. As a volunteer ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Association, she regularly attends meetings of the state’s department on aging and meets with Congressman Joe Cunningham regarding federal legislation. Two years ago, she testified before the Senate about the need to fund research and services for patients and their families.
Woods-Flowers makes time for other community affairs as well. She currently serves on the Charleston County Disabilities Board and has served as chair of the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission, as well as on the Board of Directors for the Trident Boys and Girls Clubs. Woods-Flowers has been involved with the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, East Cooper Community Outreach, East Cooper Meals on Wheels and East Cooper Kiwanis Club. The Lowcountry Girl Scouts named her a Woman of Distinction, and the state awarded her the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor presented to a citizen of South Carolina.
Woods-Flowers had known Sullivan’s Island’s first woman mayor, Kathleen Cantwell, ever since childhood. “My grandparents lived on the island, and I spent a lot of time there growing up. All the Catholic families knew each other,” she explained. Woods-Flowers remembered Cantwell as a woman whose petite stature didn’t deter her from tackling big issues. “She didn’t lack for gumption! Mrs. Cantwell loved the island and wanted what was best for its residents. And the residents loved her because she endeared herself to them,” Woods-Flowers recalled. Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley reminisced how when Cantwell returned home from cancer treatment in Michigan, residents adorned the trees on the island with yellow ribbons to welcome her back. Cantwell also ran successfully for City Council and became its first female Council member. She died in 1999 and is missed by many.
During the years the three women were in the public sphere, they met once a month to discuss similar issues within their communities. After all, Woods-Flowers explained, only a bridge separated their municipalities. In fact, when Marshall Stith replaced Cantwell as mayor of Sullivan’s Island, he asked Bunch and Woods-Flowers how he could fit into their exclusive group.
We’ve recently celebrated a century since women were finally victorious in their long struggle to win the right to vote. Seven decades later, Mayors Bunch, Woods-Flowers and Cantwell took the victory to a whole different level.
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