Between 2003 and 2012, South Carolina ranked 50th in the nation for electing women. In 2019, it ranked 44th. The last woman to represent South Carolina in Congress was in 1993. While nationwide 29.1% of state legislators are female, the South Carolina legislature is only 16.5% female, up only one woman from 2018. In fact, only nine women have ever held a statewide office.
These statistics are sobering, illustrating that in the world of elected office, positions are still largely held by males, especially in our state.
Our Thrive luncheon on March 11 brought together a panel of women who are defying those statistics and are the movers and shakers of both advocating for women in office and actually serving.
Harnessing the power of our voice
The panel discussion was largely focused on the importance of women’s voice in government and the panelists shared their tips on how we can make our voices heard.
All of our panelists stressed the importance of education as one of the most important tools for holding an office at any level. Go to as many council and committee meetings as possible. You could also serve on a local or state board to get your feet wet. This is an excellent tactic to learn parliamentary procedure, make valuable contacts and prepare yourself for eventually running.
Jenny Horne, former South Carolina Representative, pointed out that even with tremendous effort, there are still things you will not be able to prepare for. In this case, you can’t let what you don’t know put you in a box and keep you from speaking up. Sometimes you just have to go for it.
Make the Decision
Our moderator asked Ann Warner, CEO of Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN) about the importance of using our voices, but also taking up space. To the question of when Warner learned to use her voice unapologetically, she responded that she makes a conscious decision every day and in every room she is in to use her voice.
She stressed that this doesn’t have to look or sound a certain way. There are many ways to get a point across – the important thing is to not sit back and wait for someone else to speak up.
Fit the position to your lifestyle
An important consideration to make when contemplating elected office is its feasibility – both in terms of time and finances. Horne recognized that traveling to Columbia three days out of the week and having to give up a full-time job is not an option for everyone.
However, she encouraged women in the room to fit their lifestyle to the job. For example, women are still underrepresented in town and city councils or other local positions that are not such a drain on time and financial resources. Don’t be afraid to start with something that fits your lifestyle and could also work to your advantage. If you get to a point where a more rigorous elected office would work for you, you will have the resume to bolster that new venture.
Meet the Panel
Jenny A. Horne served four terms in the South Carolina House of Representatives before retiring from public service in 2016. In 2015, Politico declared her one the country’s 50 most important people in politics. Both as a lawmaker and an attorney, Horne has worked on issues centered around protecting children.
While in the House, she led the SC House Republican Caucus in ordering an audit of the state’s Department of Social Services after a spike in fatalities among children in the system. She also sponsored legislation to mandate medically accurate health education in South Carolina to reduce the teen pregnancy rate in South Carolina. She now serves on the board of the state organization to prevent teen pregnancy.
Horne shared her experience running for office for the first time. She lost by a small margin despite numerous endorsements and public support, possibly due to her status as both a woman and mother of two small children. Horne said that you learn a lot from losing. She certainly did. “Women tend to get questioned more than their male counterparts. When you speak, speak with authority.”
Described as a serial entrepreneur, Barbara Rackes has always been an advocate for women doing their best in every field. After her business beginnings in the women’s apparel industry, she built several technology companies before launching TheRackesGroup.
In 2016, Rackes joined with other leading women to found SC Women in Leadership (SC WIL), a nonprofit whose mission is to encourage women to step up and lead corporations, boards and governments. In addition to encouragement, SC WIL provides women with the resources needed to step into those leadership roles.
Rackes discussed the organization’s three pillars: Fair Voting; Fill the Pipeline; Reduce Polarization
- Fair Voting: In 2020, lines for the state’s congressional districts will be redrawn in accordance with the 2020 census.SC WIL is allying with the South Carolina League of Women Voters to help people understand the importance of the next few months.
- Fill the Pipeline: SC WIL is working with Governor Henry McMaster to recruit women of all backgrounds and perspectives for statewide leadership positions.
- Reduce Polarization: To move the state forward by informing, connecting and engaging women, SC WIL formed meaningful and interconnected Circles of Women throughout the state.
Born in Mount Pleasant, Thomasena Stokes-Marshall moved with her parents to New York as a child and spent a significant portion of her life there. She began her career in public service because she knew the benefits of the job: a stable salary, good benefits, etc. More than anything, it was a decision made out of practicality and good judgement. I think it’s clear, that after 25 years with the New York Police Department, that pragmatic decision led her to her true calling.
Stokes-Marshall returned to the area in 1993, and in 1998 became the first African American to serve on the Mount Pleasant Town Council. Stokes-Marshall said that as an attendee at Town Council meetings, she didn’t see anyone that looked like her. It didn’t sit well – she decided she was going to make a change.
Stokes-Marshall stressed the importance of educating herself before running. She made it her business to attend every community meeting she possibly could.
Ann Warner has been advocating for the rights of women and girls both globally and in the South for two decades. She is the CEO of the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN), a statewide non-profit organization that is building a movement to advance the health, economic well-being and rights of women, girls and their families in South Carolina.
Before moving to South Carolina to start WREN, Warner spent eight years with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in Washington DC, where she led research and advocacy initiatives to promote the health and empowerment of women and girls in the developing world. She has also worked for the global development organization CARE and for an HIV/AIDS service and education organization in Atlanta, GA.
Even while promoting health and empowerment of women and girls in the developing world, Warner always felt drawn to the challenges that we continue to face in our country, especially in the south.
“Talent in our own communities and neighborhoods is lost when we allow racism, sexism and other prejudices to squander potential.”
Erica Wright is the Senior Director of Regional Government Relations for the Charleston Metro Chamber. She builds relationships with local elected officials and advocates for chamber priorities on the regional level. She also activates, equips and deploys volunteers to advance the Chamber’s public policy priorities and carry a smart growth message region-wide.
She is a recipient of Charleston Regional Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 award, a Furman University Riley Institute Diversity Fellow, a former Honorary Commander and a graduate of Leadership Charleston. She was also named one of the 50 Most Influential People of 2017 by Charleston Business Magazine.
While this luncheon addressed the need for more women, and especially women of color, in elected office, more importantly, it provided attendees with some valuable advice and the uplifting knowledge that there is a network of women there to support them. If you’re considering elected office, Women in Leadership has a list of opportunities to serve as well as resources on their website.
As always, thank you to our sponsors, who ensure that Thrive can continue to bring women together for information and inspiration.