South Carolina breaks record for women in politics, still ranked near bottom in nation

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(AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, SC (WBTW) — 2021 is a record-breaking year for women in South Carolina politics, with 17.6% of seats in the state legislature held by women. 

Despite that, the state continues to rank as one of the worst in the nation for women’s representation in elected politics, coming in at 46th, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Of 46 members of the state Senate, five are women. In the House, 25 of the 124 representatives are women.

It’s a slight increase from 2019 and 2020, when 16.5% of state legislatures were women, and a jump from 2010, when women made up only 10%.

From 2009 to 2012, there were no women in the state senate.

It’s progress — South Carolina ranked 50th from 2003 until 2012, at which point it remained at 49th for two years — that advocates are celebrating, while continuing to push for more women to pursue leadership positions in government. 

Women bring different perspectives, which can lead to new solutions to problems, according to Lauren Harper, a board member for the South Carolina Women’s Leadership Network.

“Women are involved in every nook and cranny and everything that happens in our state,” she said. 

A small minority

Of the six women who have served in the U.S. House of Representatives for South Carolina, four were elected to fill vacancies after the deaths of their husbands. Each served for about a year before either choosing not to run or losing an election.

“They were placeholders, for the most part,” said Barbara Rackes, a board member for the South Carolina Women’s Leadership Network.

Current Rep. Nancy Mace is the first female in the U.S. House since Elizabeth Patterson, who served from 1987 to 1992. They are the only women to be elected to those positions outside those chosen during special elections to replace their spouses who died while in office.

There have been a total of six women who have filled nine positions for statewide elective executives, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Those include former Lt. Gov. Nancy Stenson, who was in the role from 1979 to 1982, and former Gov. Nikki Haley, who was in office from 2011 to 2017.

The two other roles were women elected to be superintendents of education.

Currently, two women are among the nine positions for statewide elective executive offices — Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette and Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman. 

Why don’t women run?

Women choose not to run for office for various reasons, including thinking they can make more of a difference in the private sector, or just not being interested in being elected, according to Kaitlin Sidorsky, an assistant professor of politics at Coastal Carolina University in Conway who has written a book on women in public office.

“For the women I’ve spoken to, a lot of them don’t like the negativity associated with elected office, they don’t like the partisanship of elected office,” she said. “For some of them, it is a privacy issue. They have children or family members, or themselves, where they don’t want that kind of scrutiny from the media in a more public role.”

Women also tend to receive “a tap on the shoulder” in order to convince them to run, while men require fewer recruitment efforts.

“They usually need to be told multiple times and pushed multiple times,” Sidorsky said. 

She said women saw a jump in representation in the early 1990s, but that gains have stalled since then.

When women began entering the political scene, the public’s discussion centered around who was watching their children or how their husbands felt about their wives running for office.

“And now, that type of rhetoric doesn’t pop up as much, with the caveat of the presidency and vice presidency,” Sidorsky said. 

Once they’re on the ballot, Sidorsky said women are just as likely to be elected as men.

More women tend to serve at the local and state levels, while men make up the majority at the federal level. Female governors, Sidorsky said, are particularly rare.

Sidorsky said there might be a role model effect with Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman to hold a nationally-elected office, that could push more women to run. Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president as the first female nominee from a major party, along with Sarah Palin being the first Republican woman nominated for a vice presidency, also broke barriers. 

Filling the pipeline

The South Carolina Women’s Leadership Network, a non-profit, multi-partisan organization, was incorporated in 2015 to advance more women to leadership positions. It remained mostly dormant until the spring of 2018.

After learning that very few women were willing to run for office if they were asked, the network became focused on getting women onto appointed boards and commissions, according to Barbara Rackes, a board member with the organization.

The group’s work includes trainings that educate women on issues like the census and redistricting. It also wants to reduce polarization between the parties.

“It doesn’t have to be a partisan point when we see a problem and we try to figure out how to solve that problem, instead of delegating it to someone else,” Rackes said.

The network has created a series of what it refers to as “circles” across the state, which aim to have women recruit others who could be good to run for office in the future. The network also has private Facebook groups and shares information about open board positions throughout the state.

Rackes said it plans to open a circle in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee area this spring.

The network wants to see women and people of color — two underrepresented demographics — in more appointed and elected positions. It also wants to make women aware that appointed positions on boards and commissions can have large impacts.

The goal, Rackes said, is to fill the political pipeline with women and build things from the ground up.

“We want women to get involved where they are,” she said. “Many women are local, they are in a community right now.”

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