Anita Lilly Pollitzer was born on October 31, 1894, the youngest child of Gustave and Clara Pollitzer. She became one of the most famous members of the Pollitzer family as a major leader in the women’s rights movement both locally in Charleston and nationally. Anita was instrumental in advocating for the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. In addition, Anita was a close friend of artist Georgia O’Keeffe and played an active role in promoting modern art in the United States.
Anita grew up in Charleston and graduated from Memminger High School in 1913. After graduation, Anita went to New York City to study art, and enrolled in the School of Practical Arts at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. There she joined the Art Students League on West 57th Street, where she met Alfred Stieglitz, whom she considered her “mentor in modernism.” She also met and befriended Georgia O’Keeffe, whom she invited to live with her relatives in New York while finishing coursework at the Teacher’s College.
In 1916, Pollitzer showed Alfred Steiglitz drawings by the then unknown O’Keeffe, which sparked the artist’s successful career. Steiglitz would later refer to Anita as “a creative force” in the Modern American Arts Movement. Upon graduation, Anita accepted a position in the art department at the University of Virginia, but she soon resigned to devote her energy to women’s rights advocacy. In 1933, Anita returned to Columbia University to earn her Master’s Degree in International Law.
Anita’s experiences in New York City influenced her feminist values and social activism. Alongside many other upper class white women, she began working with the U.S. suffrage movement in 1915. Over the course of her many visits home to South Carolina, Anita and her sisters became the founding members of the South Carolina branch of the Congressional Union, which later became part of the National Woman’s Party (NWP).
Founded by Alice Paul in 1913, the NWP supported a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage. It was the first group to picket for women’s rights, and in 1917 Anita was arrested along with fellow NWP protesters in front of the White House in Washington D.C., which caused significant negative press for President Woodrow Wilson. Though Anita was a member of the South Carolina branch, she chose to invest her time in advocacy at the national level because the NWP focused on pursuing equal gender rights through federal legislation. Famous for her persuasive abilities and charm, Anita often met with state representatives and congressmen. She was a member of the NWP Ratification Committee sent to Nashville in 1920, just before the Tennessee legislature voted on the Nineteenth Amendment for women's suffrage. With just a narrow margin in favor, Tennessee’s House of Representatives ratified the amendment, thereby providing the final vote that ensured the passage of women’s suffrage nationwide.
In 1928, Anita married Elie Charlier Edson, a theatre press agent. Her husband was supportive of her activism in the NWP and her own personalindependence. Going against custom, he even insisted she keep her Pollitzer name after marriage.
Throughout the 1920s, Anita advocated for legislation in the U.S. Congress to secure property and citizenship rights for women, and to remove hourly limitations on women in the workplace. Like many suffrage leaders, Anita and other NWP leaders focused their civil rights efforts almost exclusively on white women’s suffrage, and generally did not venture into protesting race or class inequalities.
After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Anita met with senators, congressmen, priests, rabbis, and celebrities throughout the nation to encourage the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Alice Paul first presented this amendment to Congress in 1923 to guarantee equal rights for women. Anita corresponded with women around the country, from homemakers to the First Lady of the United States, soliciting support for the NWP and the ERA. In 1934, Amelia Earhart wrote a letter to Anita offering to “make a small noise for the cause” of equal rights. In 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt agreed to meet with Anita and a group of pro-ERA women industrial workers, but she asked that they to also include some industrial workers who were opposed to the amendment, to present a range of perspectives on the issue.
Anita also advocated for women’s rights internationally. In 1926, she represented South Carolina at the International Feminists Conference at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Later that year, she participated in the World Women's Party and the International Council of Women, both of which required her attendance at international conferences for the passage of the Equal Nationality Treaty. Together with Alice Paul, she became the vice chair for the World Women’s Party. According to an interview with Alice Paul, Anita’s interests in advocacy overseas brought turmoil amongst members of the National Woman’s Party.
After her election to national chair in 1946, a rift in the NWP split the organization and resulted in a lawsuit against Anita and several founding members. An insurgent group of high-ranking NWP officers attempted to take over, insisting that Anita's group spent too much time on international rights for women, to the detriment of advocating for women’s rights in the United States.
In January of 1947, the insurgents held their own Party elections and attempted to take over the NWP headquarters in Washington, D.C. Some of Anita's fellow officeholders felt that they should step down to eliminate further controversy. Other Party members were shocked, and threatened to leave altogether if the separate group was allowed to take control. Though the general consensus at the time was that the divide developed over differing perspectives towards international advocacy for women’s rights, NWP founder Alice Paul speculated that Anita being “pronouncedly Jewish” contributed to the split. Paul believed that Anita’s Jewish background triggered anti-Semitic antagonism from other NWP members.
Anita was known to be proud, though at times conflicted and publicly reserved, regarding her family’s Jewish background. She taught Sabbath school at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston as a young woman. After the National Council of Jewish Women publicly opposed the ERA, Anita published an article entitled “Women and the Law” in The Jewish Woman magazine. In the article, she quoted the Talmud and discussed the modern conception of the woman as individual, making note that Reformed Judaism recognized women as being on par with men in every religious aspect.
While in New York, however, Anita did not align herself with a synagogue, and she was described as being “nonobservant” in the Jewish community. As a public figure, newspaper articles often identified Anita as a feminist, a South Carolinian, and an NWP member, but journalists rarely mentioned her Jewish background. Throughout her life, Anita prioritized women’s rights above all other issues, political or religious. According to a Pollitzer family story, Mabel stated in prayer, “God gave me mountains to climb and the strength to climb them,” to which Anita responded, “I don’t want God to give me mountains to climb…I want to find my own.”
Later in life, challenges arose for Anita in her relationship with artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Drawing from their college friendship, Anita wrote a book manuscript entitled A Woman on Paper: Georgia O’Keeffe, which O’Keeffe rejected. The book was eventually published posthumously in 1988. Following the death of her husband Elie in 1971, Anita had a stroke and spent the remaining years of her life under the care of nurses in New York City, frequently visited by family and friends. She died on July 3, 1975, and was buried next to her husband in Chester, Pennsylvania. Though she had spent most of her life outside of South Carolina, Anita’s obituary in the New York Times stated that she “lived in Charleston, S.C.”