South Carolina now has a record number of women in its state Senate. In fact, the number doubled during the recent elections.
But despite those dramatic-sounding gains, the number of women in the state Senate still totals only four.
Women hold just 14.7 percent of the 170 seats in the Legislature, far below the national average of 24.4 percent. The state ranks 22nd in the nation for gender parity in elected offices.
At least that is some improvement from its 46th-place ranking in 1993.
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Until this year’s election, only one woman, Lexington Republican Katrina Shealy, elected in 2012, had occupied a seat in the Senate. The number grew to two last fall when Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, won a special election to replace Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the massacre at Charleston’ Emanuel AME Church in June 2015.
Two more women were elected to the Senate last month: former state Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, and Charleston attorney Sandy Senn, a Republican.
This is touted as progress — and, of course, it is. The question is, in light of the increasing leadership role of women in all walks of like in the U.S. and around the world, is it progress worth shouting about.
Consider the fact that it has been 100 years since women gained the right to vote. Consider also that women make up 51.4 percent of South Carolina’s population.
We should have more women in both houses of the state legislature.
Despite the election of Nikki Haley, the state’s first woman governor, the advance of women in state politics has been painfully slow. Before Shealy, only 10 women had ever been elected to the 46-member state Senate. And before Shealy, Linda Short, a Chester Democrat, was the only woman in the state Senate until she retired in 2008.
One reason cited for so few women office-holders is the fact that women still are responsible for most of the child-rearing and household tasks. But even if domestic chores discourage some women from running for office, that leaves a significant pool of women who are both qualified and willing to run.
The question is why not only are there are so few women in the legislature but also why there are so few women candidates on the ballot. Only five women have won election to statewide office.
Another five have won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but four of those women were widows of congressmen, urged to finish their deceased husbands’ terms. The state has not sent a woman to Congress since 1990.
This reflects a larger problem, the lack of a network of powerful women who can nurture younger women to run for office. It reflects the lack of money flowing to potential women candidates, and the lack of effort on the part of both political parties to recruit women candidates to run.
The S.C. Legislature still is a heavily male-dominated institution. If that is to change — if the state is to stop squandering the talents of half its population — more women need to step up to run for office and encourage others to join them.
The ascension of four women to the state Senate might be historic, but it’s far from enough.