In August 1920, a baby girl was born in Brooklyn just days before women were given the right to vote. This proved to be quite the coincidence, since she would grow up to become the first female mayor of a small Southern beach town, the Isle of Palms.
Like many women of her time, Carmen Ramirez worked as a typist when she finished high school. However, unlike most women, she joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, despite her parents’ wishes. Since she could speak three languages, the Navy put Ramirez to work interpreting and translating communications between Allied Forces. While stationed in Norfolk, Ramirez met another sailor, Jack Bunch, whom she would marry. After the war, the couple moved to the Isle of Palms, Jack’s hometown, and ran his family’s restaurant at Breach Inlet.
Carmen Bunch found that moving to a small community of 300 people was a huge adjustment, but the new bride eventually settled in and became friends with islanders who frequented the family’s restaurant. The Bunches were able to use the GI Bill to purchase two lots on 17th Avenue and build the house where they raised their two children. In 1950, the couple left the restaurant business and went to work at the Charleston Naval Shipyard.
Bunch soon became interested in civic affairs and she began attending city council meetings. She ran for mayor in 1981, two years after her husband’s death, but lost to the incumbent. However, after serving four years on the city council, she won the next mayoral election in 1985. So began Bunch’s 16-year tenure as the island’s only female mayor.
Bunch’s leadership skills were put to the test when Hurricane Hugo blasted the island in 1989. The devastation was widespread, with 95% of the homes on the island destroyed or rendered unsafe. Roads were impassible, leaving the island unreachable by vehicle. Bunch had concerns that looters would still be able to make their way onto the island, so with the approval of Governor Carroll Campbell, martial law was imposed. This allows only civil authorities to enter the island. This also meant anyone who had evacuated before the storm was not able to return, even full-time residents. The decision caused anger and frustration among many property owners who were anxious to assess the damage. Some also questioned whether it was the best move for Bunch’s political future. Regardless, Bunch was determined that it was the right thing to do, and despite the swell of controversy surrounding her, she was re-elected.
After serving four consecutive terms, Bunch contemplated one more run for mayor at 81, but decided against it. She retired in 2002. In 2004 she was among the veterans present when the World War II monument was dedicated in Washington, DC. She passed in 2014.
In 2013, the city council purchased a lot next to the Island Center to be used as a public park. It was named in honor of the woman who created many waves on Isle of Palms — the largest of which barreled directly through the glass ceiling.
By Mary Coy