A little over a year ago, as city, county and state leaders took their seats in a dimly lit ballroom at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center to discuss the issues affecting our area, one leader stood out. Among the 30 or so of the most powerful elected officials in the area, the only woman was Myrtle Beach City Councilwoman Susan Grissom Means.
Asked about her unique position, Means didn’t prevaricate. “This is ridiculous,” she said after last year’s meeting.
This year, as leaders gathered around the same tables, the situation looked slightly better. Most of the seats were still filled by aging white men with graying and thinning hair, but not all. In addition to Means, new Rep. Heather Ammons Crawford occupied a chair, having replaced Rep. Thad Viers in Socastee.
It’s been a noteworthy year for women at all levels of leadership. A record number of women will serve in the U.S. Congress. And the S.C. Senate is welcoming its first female senator in years, ending what had been its shameful status as the only all-male legislative body in the nation. It was miserably ludicrous last year to watch that group of men debate abortion, for example, without any input from the gender most affected by any policy change. One female senator won’t change the world, but it’s a start.
Why is this important? At its core, it comes down to a fundamental issue of fairness in representation. Women make up half the population, but less than a tenth of our local leadership. But beyond that, electing more women also increases the chance that women’s views and women’s experiences will play a part in political decisions. Without more women in leadership, we can only wonder what we’re missing out on.
Not that we don’t appreciate the hard work of our male leaders. Many are wonderful representatives and do their jobs with diligence and dedication. But, perhaps understandably, they often simply don’t have the same interest or passion that women can bring to many topics. It seems only common sense, but researchers have determined that having more women in elected office means more attention to policies that directly impact women, such as domestic violence prevention, child support, help for single mothers and reproductive rights. Not that these are the only types of issues women care about – and some women may not care about them at all – but when they do come up, it only makes sense that the group most affected by these issues have some say in how policies are crafted.
South Carolina has for years been at the very bottom in the nation when it comes to the percentage of women in the state legislature. We have never had more than 13 percent of our legislature made up by women, and in recent years it’s been under 10 percent. That’s preposterous.
Why are we in this regrettable position? In the past, it could have been chalked up to gender bias among voters. But intriguingly, research is now showing that women and men have an equal chance of winning – if they run. The hurdle stopping many female candidates is not so much voter bias or a lack of skills, but just worry about the possibility of voter bias and less confidence in their skills.
In a 2008 report, “Why Are Women Still Not Running for Public Office?” researchers Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox explained the issue. After surveying men and women, the researchers found that while men and women were often just as qualified for an elected position, men are 65 percent more likely than women to think of themselves as qualified. Women are also less likely to believe they can win and more likely to believe that being a woman will be a detriment in a campaign. An astounding 12 percent of women ruled themselves out for public office completely just for being the “wrong” sex. In the face of such beliefs, it’s worth repeating the research conclusions cited above: Women perform just as well as men when they do run for office.
Don’t misunderstand. Electing women just for their gender would be just as inane and silly as it would be to elect Hispanic or black leaders just for their skin color (though we could certainly use more racial diversity in our local leadership as well). In recommending candidates before local elections, we have urged voters to pick the opponent of a female or minority candidate, if in our assessment they aren’t qualified or don’t appear to be the best choice for voters.
The solution is not to elect people based solely on their gender or race. The solution is to encourage more people of all genders and races to run in the first place, increasing the chance that women or minorities will be the best candidate. In elections this past year we saw a good number of strong female candidates for office. In the race for Congress, Katherine Jenerette once again impressed us, and Gloria Bromell Tinubu (while we didn’t agree with all of her stances) could have made a more than capable congresswoman. If former County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland succeeds in her bid to reclaim that seat a few months from now, we could see another female face at the table in the coming year. We need more such women who are willing to put their name in the hat.
Elections have just ended, and we’ve got some time until the next round. If you’re interested in running, it’s a good time to start preparing and getting ready. We need more dedicated and earnest public servants, particularly women. If you’re waiting for somebody to suggest that you run, consider this your nudge.