More than 51 percent of the people who live in South Carolina are women, but 87 percent of the state’s current legislators are male. That ranks the Palmetto State 48th in proportion of female state legislators, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The South Carolina Chapter of the NEW Leadership Conference hopes to see that change, and the women who currently serve are lending a hand.
The Conference is a nonpartisan program designed to educate college women about the political process and teach them to become effective public leaders in politics, public policy and public service. This year’s Conference includes 26 young women, and the group spent Wednesday at the State House, meeting with female leaders including Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, State Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn, Swati Patel (chief of staff for Gov. Nikki Haley), Nexsen Pruet attorney Marguerite Willis and many of the state’s 23 female legislators. The message from the leaders to the young women was simple: more female voices are needed.
“We are mighty, but we are few,” said Rep. Jenny Horne. Rep. Rita Allison pointed out to the group that the number of women in the legislature is about the same in 2016 as when she was first elected to the House in 1992.
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you don’t have a voice in what goes on in your state, in your country,” Allison said. Rep. Wendy Nanney agreed, saying “There is plenty of room to grow, but it’s going to take your involvement and your interest.”
Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, one of two women currently holding Senate seats, ran for that office after the murder of Sen. Clementa Pinckney with eight others at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. She told the young women she had never planned to run for office, but that tragedy changed her mind.
“I got angry: really, really angry not only at the state of South Carolina, but the state of America and how we view each other.” She said she saw people stepping forward to run and said to herself “Why can’t I do it? I knew they couldn’t be more organized than me and they could not out-work me.”
Rep. Chandra Dillard told the students of her choice to get involved by running for Greenville County Council because she felt “my councilman [emphasis hers] was not representative of my ideas or even my work ethic.” She served on that council from 1999-2008, and in the House since 2009, proving to herself and others that, as she put it, “We can lead. Women can lead.”
Nanney told the students that though they are likely not ready yet to run for office, now is the time to lay the groundwork. “You can start at your age. Show up and volunteer,” she said. “If you aspire to run for office one day, that’s where it starts.”
“Don’t ever be afraid,” Rep. Laurie Funderburk said. “What you’re saying is just as important as what any man is saying.” Matthews echoed her colleague, saying “Stop relying on men to tell you what you should do.”
Rep. Beth Bernstein said she never seriously considered running for office until asked to do so, and several of her colleagues had similar stories of their beginnings. “I’m glad to see we have women in college who are taking the initiative and want to lead.”
One of the participants, Winthrop University graduate student Teena Allen, said meeting female leaders made government seem more accessible to her. “Politics to me kind of seemed so distant. I thought it was a challenge. It was something I always wanted to learn more about, but I never really had the opportunity because I was fearful. I was intimidated,” she said. “I really appreciate the program and the opportunity to hear so much camaraderie, so much about being a team player, hearing this idea that we can make big changes by working together. I think that’s been the greatest highlight of this experience.”
University of South Carolina student Amy Saukas, a Senate page and a Conference participant, said the lessons learned were powerful. “This program has taught me a lot about not only politics, but we did public speaking, fundraising, campaigning, and being able to meet people,” she said. “Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t do a thing. You can do anything. You just might be able to do it in heels.”