Barbara Rackes

Columbia businesswoman Barbara Rackes is one of the founders of S.C. Women in Leadership, which seeks to encourage women to seek elected office.

In South Carolina, women make up nearly 52 percent of the population. And yet, only 16 percent of the seats in the state Legislature are held by women.

A newly formed nonprofit is looking to change that.

More than two dozen women in various fields, including business, education and politics, have come together to create S.C. Women in Leadership, describing it as a “multi-partisan nonprofit” that has set encouraging women to run for elected office as one of its primary goals. The organization was formally launched on April 8 at Columbia City Hall with a gathering of dozens of women leaders. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin also was on hand.

Columbia businesswoman Barbara Rackes is one of the founders of S.C. Women in Leadership. At the organization’s recent launch, she joked that “sometimes men get up in the morning and they look at themselves in the mirror and they say, ‘Hmm, not bad. I think I’ll run for Senate.’” She says that, by contrast, women might look in that same mirror and make a list of their shortcomings.

She says it’s time for them to set those shortcomings aside and get involved in politics at various levels.

“Today’s pool of women leaders is very shallow,” Rackes said. “Our mission at WIL is to deepen that pool. And to achieve what experts call critical mass, or 20 to 30 percent representation by women, we need to persuade a whole lot of women to set aside their learned and reinforced lack of self of self-confidence. For years women have told me, ‘I’m not smart enough. I’m not rich enough. I don’t have nice enough clothes. I need more degrees. I need to take care of my family. … Studies say, almost across the board, that, unless you have at least 20 percent representation by women, outcomes do not change. They are at the table, but they don’t say anything, or they aren’t listened to.

“But somewhere between 20 and 30 percent we achieve that critical mass, and suddenly voices are heard.”

Benjamin also is one of the founders of the new women’s group. He lauded the leadership and tendency toward pragmatic collaboration often shown by women in politics and government, including at the city level.

“Study after study, regardless of where you go, shows that, when women are in position of power, things get better,” the mayor says. “You start getting thoughtful policymaking. You get people who are principled, but who are also willing to work across the aisle, at times, to get things done. We’ve seen that type of leadership here at the City of Columbia, with [former City Councilwomen] Anne Sinclair, Frannie Heizer and Belinda Gergel, and I’m so proud to serve with my Mayor Pro Tem Tameika Isaac Devine. We had the opportunity to work together to hire [a] female city manager [Teresa Wilson], and as a result we are getting some fantastic results on behalf of the people of Columbia.”

The launch of Women in Leadership arrives at a time in which women’s groups have been increasingly flexing their muscles in Columbia.

For instance, in March there was the announcement of the Columbia City of Women initiative. A partnership between Historic Columbia and the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN), City of Women is designed to celebrate women who have wielded great influence in the Capital City. According to a release from Historic Columbia, the organizations will utilize “social media, special events and, later, a reimagined map of the city” to honor the accomplishments of significant women. The first honoree is Dr. Lilly Stern Filler, who created the committee that installed the South Carolina Holocaust Memorial in 2001.

WREN has been politically active this year, advocating for legislation at the State House. It has supported, among other measures, a bill that would close the gender pay gap and a bill that which would require employers to provide reasonable time and space for employees to pump breast milk at work.

Kara Gormley Meador, a former longtime TV journalist who now runs a communications firm, says that S.C. Women in Leadership can exist and thrive alongside other groups that are championing issues important to women.

“SC WIL is not competing against any other organizations that have been created to advance women’s issues,” said Meador, who spoke at the April 8 Women in Leadership launch. “Rather, WIL’s goal is to support organizations like the League of Women Voters, the AARP and WREN by providing future leaders with the tools and information they need to compete on a level playing field.”

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