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Days after women's march, Charleston revives its Commission for Women

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Women's March in Charleston (copy)

Thousands of protesters held signs and cheered at Brittlebank Park during the Women's March downtown last week. Days later, the city of Charleston revived its Commission for Women, but chairwoman Kathleen Wilson said it will not become 'an extension of' the march. (Michael Pronzato/staff/File)

Days after thousands of residents poured into Brittlebank Park for the Charleston Women’s March, Charleston City Council moved Tuesday to revive its long-dormant Commission for Women to sharpen the city's focus on issues particularly relevant to women.

But the new chairwoman of the 16-member commission, City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, downplayed the timing of the two, saying the group's platform wouldn't be influenced by the protest. 

“What I do not want to see is have it become a political body,” she said. “I don’t want to see it be an extension of – for example, all of these marches that are going on.”

Instead, she wants to focus more on the issues all women can agree on, such as supporting victims of domestic violence and working for equal pay between women and men.

“Let’s work on tangible problems,” she said.

Mayor John Tecklenburg said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that Wilson was the appropriate choice to chair the commission, given that she’s council's only female member.

“I am the council member appointee by default,” Wilson said Friday. She also said she doesn’t consider herself a feminist or a women’s rights advocate.

“Quite honestly, I’ve never really gravitated to women’s groups. I’ve played with the boys all my life,” she said. “It will be a new experience for me.”

The Charleston Women’s March, which attracted an estimated 2,000 participants, coincided with hundreds of others held around the globe the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration to draw attention to women’s rights.

Efforts to revive the city commission were in the works long before then. Its new appointments have been in the queue for several months.

Jennet Robinson Alterman, one of the new commissioners and the former executive director of the Center for Women, participated in the march at Brittlebank Park. But the long-time women’s rights advocate agreed with Wilson that the commission should not become politicized.

“Social issues can quickly turn into partisan issues, whereas focusing on economic issues is something everyone can agree on. Nobody can be against equal pay for equal work,” she said. “The woman who has economic independence does better, as does her family.”

The Commission for Women was formed in 1976 to develop policies related to the “status of women” and to investigate claims of gender discrimination. It’s been largely idle since the late 1990s, city spokesman Jack O’Toole said.

Former Mayor Joe Riley said the commission created a unique opportunity for women to be involved in local government, and it helped put more females in leadership roles at the city when it was active. He said it’s a good idea to revive the commission and update its focus.

“Issues and challenges change with the times, and it’s important for a group like that to be current,” he said.

Wilson said one of the commission’s first tasks will be to update the ordinance’s language, which contains outdated terms like “homemakers.”

Robinson Alterman said she hopes the group will get input from women of all walks of life in Charleston.

“I think the start-off point is we decide which issues we think are priorities, we gather our facts, and talk to women all around the community to find out what’s on their mind,” she said. “It’s about asking, ‘What’s important to you and how can we help?’”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

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