Ellie Kinnaird ’53 resigned her position as a North Carolina state senator this past year to protest the legislature’s passing of what she views as a repressive voting rights law. Now she’s rallying the troops in a grassroots effort to repeal it.
As a young woman, Eleanor “Ellie” Kinnaird did what was expected of her. She majored in music at Carleton, one of the few career paths available for a female college student in the 1950s. She married, had children, and moved to wherever her husband’s job dictated. And because her father was a judge and a community leader, she followed his example and became involved in her community.
Over the years, however, Kinnaird ’53 began doing what she believed was right, even if it was unexpected. Now 82 years old, she made national headlines in August when, after serving 17 years as a senator in the North Carolina General Assembly, she resigned her position halfway through her term. Kinnaird decided she could no longer serve her constituents through elected office.
“What turned it for me was the voting bill, which passed this summer,” says Kinnaird, who was one of only 17 Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate. (North Carolina also has a Republican-controlled House and a Republican governor.) “We now have one of the most repressive laws in the country, and I am committed to counteracting it.”
The voter ID bill that the North Carolina legislature passed requires photo identification at the polls, reduces the time allowed for early voting, eliminates same-day registration, and makes it more difficult for college students to vote. The U.S. Justice Department has sued the state to stop its implementation, charging that the state was “willfully discriminatory” when it passed the new law. As of February, the court had not ruled on the case.
Since resigning from elected office, Kinnaird has focused her energies on promoting change at the grassroots level, which she believes will be more effective given North Carolina’s present political climate. She gives presentations across the state, urging citizens to cast their ballots and get involved in the process. She also remains active in the state’s Democratic Party, strategizing with its leaders.
“People are eager to get involved,” says Kinnaird, whose goal is to see the current legislators voted out of office. “I’ve been exceedingly busy, but it’s gratifying.”
Kinnaird’s transformation into a forceful and effective leader has something to do with cultural changes, but more to do with her personal experiences and intellect.
“After college, I worked as a clerk at a Chicago bank,” she recalls. “Women worked in the typing pool as secretaries and fee clerks, and men were trained as officers—a path not open to women.” After moving to San Antonio with her husband, Kinnaird again worked as a clerk until her employers fired her when they learned she was pregnant.
Years later in Chapel Hill, where she received a master’s degree in music from the University of North Carolina and gave music lessons while she raised three boys, Kinnaird became involved in local revitalization and environmental issues. She ran for public office at the urging of environmental supporters. From 1986 to 1995, she served as mayor of Carrboro, one town over from Chapel Hill.
Deciding, finally, to pursue her interest in public policy, Kinnaird earned a law degree from North Carolina Central University in 1992. A couple years later, her supporters in the Democratic Party persuaded her to run for a seat in the North Carolina Senate, which she won in 1996 as part of a Democratic majority. Even so, she had to break into the Senate’s insular culture. One of the most liberal senators, Kinnaird was nonetheless able to build alliances and enact change. Her proudest accomplishments include implementing tighter regulations on hog waste lagoons (open pits used to treat waste from hog farms), passing a moratorium on the death penalty, promoting a therapeutic approach to juvenile justice that focused on the needs of young offenders, and passing progressive election laws.
Over the past several years, though, legislators systematically dismantled much of the progress she’d made. In addition to passing the repressive voter ID law, the legislature abolished the award-winning juvenile justice system and folded it back into the adult correctional system. “The legislature struck down my 17 years of social justice and environmental work,” Kinnaird says. “Voter suppression was just the last straw.”
By resigning her position in the legislature, Kinnaird has held true to her conviction to do what she believes is right—which she traces back to her experiences at Carleton during the height of the McCarthy era. She remembers a professor who was openly communist. “Carleton didn’t fire her,” says Kinnaird. “And that was a brave thing for the college to do at that time. I learned that if you do what you believe is right, you will be rewarded. This principle guides everything I do.”