“S.C. suffering lack of female lawmakers”

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Op-Ed re-posted from here by ANNIE BOITER-JOLLEY and LAURA R. WOLIVER

In November, women made advances in representation in state legislatures across the country. Out of 2,332 female candidates nationwide, 1,465 won their bids for state legislative seats : 1,351 in state assemblies or houses, and 433 in state senates. These women, added to the 319 previously elected who did not face opposition, now hold a record 24.2 percent of all state legislative seats.

For the first time, women make up the majority of a state senate (New Hampshire). North Carolina’s governor and six of 10 statewide elected officers are women.

Women in South Carolina have not fared well. In the 2008 elections, 11 incumbent women and six first-timers were elected to the House, increasing the number of representatives by three, and pushing women to 10 percent for the first time since 2002. But for the first time since 1979, there are no women in the Senate : making it the only all-male state senate in the country.

Since women won the right to vote, the highest number of female legislators South Carolina has had at one time was 22 (1992-1995; 1997-1998). South Carolina ranked 36th (1992-1995) and then 44th (1997-1998) in the country for female representation. Since then, our ranking has gone down, hitting 48th in 1999 and 50th in 2003, where it has languished.

Several factors play a role in this, starting with the fact that less-educated, lower-income voters are less likely to support female candidates. And we have those voters in abundance: According to the U.S. Census, 44 states have higher median incomes than South Carolina, and we rank 12th in poverty; our level of education ranks low.

In addition, incumbency favors men, establishing name recognition, financial support and free campaigning.

A shortage of female candidates is attributed to the limitations of traditional Southern gender roles and social mores, as well as the pervasive good-old-boys club that women run up against, even after winning political office.

Does it matter that South Carolina has no female state senators, few female members of the House, no statewide elected female officials, a paltry number of female judges and college boards of trustees disproportionately white and male? Yes.

First, it means that the majority of the citizens of the state, the majority of the voters, the majority of the college students, the majority of the taxpayers are not present in the chambers of political power in their own government.

Second, political science research displays that having women in a city council, school board or legislature alters institutional agendas and adds perspectives and experiences, informing public policy discussions with the priorities, desires and needs of girls, women and their families. Without women in government, assumptions and generalizations about girls and women can go unchallenged. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her 1996 majority opinion in United States v. Virginia (a case about single-sex, publicly funded colleges):”Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”

In the S.C. Senate, however, there are no women present to challenge misinformation about women’s lives. Instead, in a true patriarchal fashion, S.C. women must rely on the charity of men, or in the words of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire,”the kindness of strangers.”

As the Senate takes up the state budget, regulation of predatory payday lenders, an increase in our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax and reproductive decisions : all of which directly impact many women and their children’s financial, housing, health, and retirement security : the absence of senators with wombs limits the”informed choices”these male politicians make about women’s lives and possibilities. Absent from serious discussion also are many agenda items that a Legislature with a more balanced gender representation would be concerned with, such as preventing domestic violence, working toward fair pay and benefits, providing access to affordable physical, mental and dental care for all families, ensuring food and housing security and promising more than”minimally adequate education”in state schools.

We hope the two major political parties consider the lack of women in government important and shameful enough to devote resources and energy to recruiting and supporting women for political office. Although times are tough, there is no reason for South Carolina to be complacent while it goes backwards in women’s political representation.

Ms. Boiter-Jolley, a Chapin native, is a senior majoring in political science and women’s and gender studies at USC. Dr. Woliver is a professor in the Department of Political Science and graduate director of the women’s and gender studies program at USC.

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