When Gertrude Dills McKee of Jackson County took her seat in the North Carolina Senate on January 7, 1931, she became the first woman in the state’s history to serve in that chamber. She was sworn in ten years after Lillian Exum Clement of Buncombe County became the first female member of the state House.
McKee (1885-1948) was in her day among the state’s most prominent women and brought to the legislature a wealth of experience in public affairs. Born and reared in Dillsboro, she was the daughter of the town’s founder. A 1905 graduate of Peace Institute, Dills in 1913 married Ernest Lyndon McKee. In 1923 the McKees bought the 2,300-acre estate of Wade Hampton at Cashiers and, with the help of investors, developed the present-day resort, High Hampton Inn.
Her first involvement in politics came in 1928 with her participation in the campaign for Congress of Zeb Weaver. Two years later Gertrude McKee successfully sought the state Senate seat from the Thirty-second District. She jokingly referred to her forty-nine male colleagues as “my children.”
As chair of the public welfare committee, she took a special interest in child labor laws and old age assistance. Voters returned her to the Senate in 1937 and 1943, the year in which The State magazine speculated on the possibility of her becoming North Carolina’s first female governor. In 1948, she died three weeks after being elected to a fourth Senate term.
Gertrude McKee’s other activities as a civic leader and clubwoman were numerous: president, North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1925; president, Southeastern Council of Federated Women’s Clubs, 1926; president, North Carolina Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1928; Commission for Consolidation of the University of North Carolina, 1932; State Board of Education, 1943-1945; Commission to Restore Tryon Palace, 1945-1948; and a trustee of the University of North Carolina, Western Carolina University, Peace College, and Brevard College.
sources: North Carolina Manual, 1931, 1937, and 1943
The History of Jackson County, Max R. Williams, ed., 1987
“Gertrude Dills McKee: A Biographical Analysis” by Joan W. Ferguson, (M.A. thesis,
Western Carolina University, 1988)
The State, December 2, 1933, and June 5, 1943
Charlotte Observer, July 25, 1935
Asheville Citizen, November 28, 1948