Young girls who watched Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination last week are growing up in a very different South Carolina than their mothers and grandmothers did. A female governor is running their state. And a woman could soon become their country’s commander in chief. Women and girls have more educational opportunities and career options than ever before.
But most women who want to run for office themselves would still find it difficult to break through in their home state.
14.1 Percentage of women in S.C. legislature, second lowest in the country
“South Carolina is South Carolina – it can be really hard getting people to come around,” said Republican state Sen. Katrina Shealy, who was elected in 2012 to what was at the time the country’s only all-male Senate. “We have great people, but it’s still been hard to get them to accept women in a leadership role.”
The Palmetto State still has the second-lowest percentage of women in the state legislature in the nation, tied with Oklahoma at 14.1 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two of South Carolina’s 46 senators and 22 of the 124 state representatives are women.
It wasn’t always this way
“If you go back, South Carolina was not always in a race to the bottom – it’s not that there were huge gains in other states and we failed to keep up,” said Winthrop University political scientist Karen Kedrowski. “But that after the initial wave of women there weren’t more in place to replace them, and we began to backslide.”
I see it changing. I don’t see it changing fast.
S.C. state Sen. Katrina Shealy
Things are starting to change, however slowly, and female leaders are hoping to keep the momentum going. In 2012, South Carolinians elected more women into the S.C. House of Representatives than any time since 1975. Next year the number of women in the Senate will double, from two to four.
“It’s getting better,” Shealy said. “I don’t know if I’ll know how to act, to actually have people in there that look like me ... it’ll be a wonderful thing.”
While a number of roadblocks remain for women seeking elected office in the state, from a conservative political culture to an incumbency effect, the main problem is that they are simply not on the ballot.
“What is really getting in the way is that women don’t run,” Kedrowski said.
Sexist targeting is alive and well
“Women don’t like to run because they don’t want to put their family out there, while men don’t seem to mind that as much,” Shealy said.
The rise of social media, which disproportionally targets female candidates with misogynistic comments and threats, is also a deterrent.
The number of women in the S.C. Senate will double from 2 to 4, with two women, Mia McLeod and Republican Susan Brill, running for outgoing Sen. Joel Lourie’s seat in District 22 and the addition of Sandy Senn, who faces no opposition in November in District 41.
“There has been a decline in the respectfulness of our public debate,” College of Charleston political science professor Kendra Stewart said. “Hillary Clinton by her own admission has developed a thick skin; Nikki Haley too; but I can see a lot of women who don’t want to go through that or put their families through that.”
It doesn’t stop once you log off social media. When she was the only woman in the Senate, Shealy had to speak out after a colleague’s offensive joke about women being “a lesser cut of meat.”
Running in the South
Most of the states with the lowest female representation are clustered in the Deep South.
“What sets it apart is a more traditional political culture, and people are more religious,” Stewart said, telling a story of a female candidate who, while campaigning door to door, would be met with the question, “But who will take care of your children?”
“If you are woman who has grown up and socialized in the idea that you should be submissive to men and your role is in the home, it’s a big leap to say you should run for governor,” Kedrowski said. “For many, it would never enter their minds.”
Women in South Carolina also are less likely to hold professional leadership positions, which tend to be launching pads for public office.
“Women still tend to be lower on the economic scale in the South, and so things that you need to get into public office, like money and experience, they have less access to,” said Stewart.
Several programs in the state are aiming to plant the idea in young women’s heads that they can envision themselves as leaders. Girl Scout programs put more emphasis on leadership skills, programs like Kedrowski’s New Leadership South Carolina encourages college-age women to go into public service, and “Ready to Run” programs look for viable candidates.
The Hillary Clinton effect: ‘Right woman, right place, right time’
Seeing women break down the barriers of first female governor and possibly first female president is likely to change the way the next generation thinks about leadership.
“I hope that it makes a difference, I hope young women will see that they can do it – even though it’s tough and sometimes you get bruised, you have to put yourself out there,” Shealy said. “In the end it’s worth it.”
More importantly, it changes the conversation.
It won’t make a huge difference in 2016, but it might stimulate and inspire more women to consider running in four years, eight years, 20 years.
Karen Kedrowski, Winthrop University political scientist
“The next time there’s a woman who runs for governor of South Carolina, the majority of stories aren’t going to be about the fact that she’s a woman,” Stewart said. “And states that have women elected to office are likely to elect more women. It changes the system.”
Democratic state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell said while it’s undoubtedly historic, it’s hard to judge whether Clinton’s nomination will boost women candidates down the ballot in states like South Carolina.
“It’s sometimes counterintuitive in the rural areas of the South,” she said.
It makes a huge difference. Now little girls don’t see it as something they can’t do; it becomes a normal thing.
Kendra Stewart, College of Charleston political science professor
Several experts boiled it down to three things: “right woman, right message, right time.”
“It explains a lot of Nikki Haley’s success, as well as Hillary Clinton’s and Sarah Palin’s,” Kedrowski said.
“We don’t need women as sacrificial lambs, but running in positions where they’re likely to win,” she said. “Especially if they’re putting themselves out there, in a grueling and expensive and potentially humiliating process.”
One of the challenges is that in a Republican-dominated state, the majority of women run as Democrats.
“When the party’s not winning, the candidates are not winning,” Stewart said.
Bringing a different focus to the statehouse
South Carolina’s female lawmakers say that their perspective brings diversity to what would be a narrower agenda.
“There are issues that women are more comfortable tackling, in general, than men are – child sexual abuse being one of them,” Powers Norrell said. “There are topics that women are more versed in and have more experience with, and we need that voice in proportion to the general population.”
Women’s advocacy organizations say that lack of representation is one of the main reasons that South Carolina remains one of only three states without equal pay laws in the country.
Legislation on affordable childcare, domestic abuse, equal pay, anti-discrimination laws, women’s health and education funding all tends to be prioritized and pushed by female legislators.
Shealy said she hopes having more female colleagues will mean she has help on some of these “not glamorous” issues.
“Nobody’s going to donate money to your campaign if you worked on domestic violence issues or family issues,” she said.
Shealy said she has often reached out to the only other female senator, Democratic state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, to work on children’s issues.
Norrell agreed that women in the South Carolina legislature work well together together across political lines.
“In state politics, there are very few things that will divide us in terms of party,” she said. “Once in a while we’ll have a clearly partisan issue, like Medicaid expansion. But very often, in many issues, the women of the legislature have a unified perspective because of our common experience.”
Steven Porter in Philadelphia contributed to this report.