Gov. Nikki Haley's attendance at an all-male event for the fraternal Hibernian Society last week has raised questions about whether South Carolina's first female chief executive missed an opportunity to be a champion for women.
Haley, a Republican of Indian-American descent , stopped by the 210th Anniversary Dinner of the Hibernian Society of Charleston on Thursday long enough to give a toast. The Hibernian Society was founded as an Irish benevolent organization. Haley was the only woman at the dinner, according to attendants.
Kendra Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston who has taught classes on politics and women's studies, said Haley could have used the occasion to decline the invitation and make a statement about her desire to see groups tear down gender walls.
"I think her willingness to speak to the group is almost an endorsement of what the group does or believes in," Stewart said.
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Some might find her appearance problematic or troubling, Stewart said. But others might view it as her trying to gain new ground for women by breaking the ranks of a traditionally exclusive group, she said.
Haley is perhaps the first woman to address the group, which will not comment publicly on their events. Their high-profile members have included former Democratic U.S. Sen. and Gov. Fritz Hollings. The state's governors have historically been invited to address the local Hibernians.
Neil C. Robinson Jr., a Charleston lawyer and past president of the Hibernian Society, said the governor received a standing ovation at the black-tie event that drew more than 800 members and guests.
Rob Godfrey, Haley press secretary, said Haley welcomed the chance.
"The governor appreciated the invitation to their party, the very warm welcome she received, and the opportunity to give a toast to our great state," Godfrey said in a statement.
South Carolina women's groups declined comment on Haley's decision.
Stewart said Haley's decision to speak before the fraternal group is consistent with her decision to downplay her gender. For example, Haley would not sign a pledge from the Southeastern Institute for Women in Politics to appoint more women to fill the state's boards and run government agencies.
The institute's Gubernatorial Appointments Project seeks to counter the state's dismal ranking for women in public office. South Carolina has the lowest percentage of women in the state legislature, including none in the Senate, and no females serving in Congress.
Haley's decision not to focus on the glass ceiling is a disappointment to some women, Stewart said.
"It's not really surprising as a Republican woman that she's chosen not to focus on that," Stewart said.
"In a state like South Carolina, it doesn't get you very far in pointing out your differences."
U.S. Rep. Tim Scott -- one of two black Republicans elected to the U.S. House from the Deep South in more than a century -- also attended the dinner. Scott said he was not the only black in attendance.
Scott said he saw the invitation as a chance to share a "conservative message about freedom" to a group invested in South Carolina's future. He did not consider the group's limited membership as an issue before attending.
"I gave a toast to freedom and said, 'On God's green Earth, we all work better together,'" Scott said.
He added, "I get the fact that we live in a sometimes race-centric society. But that's just not me.
" I go to groups that are mostly black or mostly white. It doesn't matter."
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, both of whom are white, were also in attendance.
Neither could be reached for comment.