FEATURE ‌ Ladies First 

A dearth of women in the state Senate adds pressure to special elections

With Sen. Linda Short heading for the door next year, the pressure is on Rep. Catherine Ceips (R-Beaufort) and Rep. Shirley Hinson (R-Berkeley), both primary candidates in upcoming special elections, to preserve a woman's perspective in the state Senate.

Short (D-Chester) has already said she won't seek reelection and many women in the Statehouse, some Democrats, are supporting Ceips' campaign in hopes of preventing the Senate from becoming a "boys' club" for the first time in nearly 30 years.

With only one woman in the state Senate and 14 in the House, South Carolina's female representation trails the rest of the nation.

"We have found the South has been very slow in accepting women in leadership positions," says Robin Reed, president and CEO of the National Foundation for Women Legislators, an advocacy and education group. The South is the hardest place for a woman to get elected, she says, and there's none worse than South Carolina.

By comparison, Georgia has eight women in the Senate and 38 in the House; and North Carolina has seven women in the Senate and 37 in the House.

"Fifty-two percent of the population is women and eight percent of the legislature is women," says Vida Miller (D-Georgetown). "There's something wrong with that picture"

There's something way wrong with that picture when you consider that women are elected to a majority of positions in the far- off state of Washington.

Last month, 11 female legislators, including Miller and four other Democrats, hosted a fund-raiser for Ceips, one of two candidates in a May 15 Republican primary runoff to replace Scott Richardson, who was recently appointed state Insurance Department director.

"I'm not getting actively involved in that race, but I think it's important for us women to support each other," Miller says.

Hinson also hosted the event and now finds herself garnering similar support as she prepares for a primary run for the seat left vacant after the death of Sen. Bill Mescher last month.

"Women up here are supporting women," she says.

While one's sex doesn't dictate an opinion on any particular policy, men and women approach some issues with a different point of view, Miller says.

"That's not to say that one's right or one's wrong, but they should both be considered," she says.

Electable Mystique

The reason women aren't sitting in the Statehouse shouldn't be blamed on the men currently filling those seats, Hinson says. Male legislators seek out her perspective, and respect is earned easily if you can prove your value, regardless of whether you're male or female.

"It doesn't take long," she says. "If an individual has something to bring to the table, it's easily detected."

What is a real problem is getting women to enter the races to begin with.

Talking to us from her art studio on a Friday afternoon while coordinating her Saturday schedule and greeting customers, Miller noted that most women likely don't run for office because they don't have the time to juggle a family, a career, and three days a week in Columbia.

"Women divide their time in so many pieces," Hinson says. "We're supposed to be the mom, the spouse, the team mom, plus have a job."

The lack of civility in some races is likely also chasing some of them off, Miller says.

"Men can say things in campaigns that women might say and be looked at as unladylike," Miller says.

Tied in to the "ladylike" persona is the difficulty that women have raising campaign cash. Where a man might receive the maximum contribution, the woman may get half of that or less, Reed says.

"Being a Southern lady, we're used to asking for the money for somebody else, but we've been taught not to do that for ourselves," Hinson says.

The difficulty is evident in Ceips' race. In the Republican primary on May 1, Ceips trailed Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton by less than 200 votes, forcing the runoff. But in financial disclosures in mid-April, she had only raised $45,000, while Newton had raised more than $73,000 — and that was even though Ceips had 53 more individual donors than Newton.

Women aren't kept from office just because they don't stand up to run for the seats, they're also kept out when, come election day, their sisters stand up in support of the other guy.

"We know more women vote on election day," Hinson says.

Chris Rock noted the disparity during a recent appearance on Saturday Night Live. "Everybody loves white women ... except white women," he joked. "White women are the majority of the country and they have had the right to vote for 100 years and still they've not elected a white woman president. What are you bitches waiting on?"

Both Hinson and Reed say the key is for competent women to run, noting women won't vote for a woman just because they have the whole V-thing in common.

"We have to see quality women running," Hinson says.

Reed's advice for both of the women running: "If they stress the issues and they think outside the box, and they listen, they'll win."

The advice has already been heeded. Both Hinson and Ceips could likely rattle off dozens of campaign issues before they mention the threat of a cigar-smoking, towel-snapping boys' club in the state Senate.

But Miller makes a good point when asked what the threat of a boys' club really means.

"There's just one woman in the Senate as it is," she says. "It's already a boys' club."

One or two women won't change the atmosphere in the chamber, making it important for women to show up on election day and when it comes time to run for office next year.


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