When voters recently went to the polls to choose who would represent South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, few likely had gender on their minds. And that’s probably as it should have been: Both GOP challenger Nancy Mace and Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham talked about a lot of issues — the economy, offshore drilling, caring for veterans, protecting S.C. military bases, constituent services — during their campaigns. Gender, not so much.
Still, Ms. Mace’s victory has become part of a larger, positive story as the 117th Congress convenes in early January. Its members will include at least 141 women, breaking the record of 129 women now serving. She is one of 17 new GOP congresswomen. It’s a welcome milestone that comes on the heels of the centennial of our 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote (and, by extension in most places, the right to seek elected office).
South Carolina has sent just a handful of women to Congress over the years, and most of them served only short stints after their husbands died in office. That includes Elizabeth Hawley Gasque, the state’s first congresswoman, 1938-39; Clara G. McMillan, 1939-41; and Corinne Boyd Riley, 1962-63. Only U.S. Rep. Liz Patterson, who represented the Upstate’s 4th Congressional District from 1987-93, did not follow in her husband’s footsteps.
Ms. Mace is poised to become the state’s first woman elected to serve in Washington since Ms. Patterson lost her reelection bid almost three decades ago. Those who know Ms. Mace know she is accustomed to being in “The Company of Men,” (which is the title of the book she wrote after being the first woman to graduate from The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets in 1999).
This state also has made incremental progress in electing women to the Legislature. In recent years, South Carolina ranked at the bottom in the percentage of its state lawmakers who are women, but it now has four female senators (out of 46) and 23 female House members (out of 124). That 16% figure clearly does not represent a major leap forward, and it still lags the national average, but it is slightly better than four other states. And it appears to have improved a tiny bit (one more woman in both the House and Senate) after this fall’s elections.
Of course, these results are part of a larger political picture that also includes the nation’s first female vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, and women voters’ dominant role in helping President-elect Joe Biden. No wonder a recent Wall Street Journal headline declared: “The Year of the Woman Really, Finally Did Arrive in 2020.”
Many voters rightly are wary of candidates who would present their gender or race as their supreme qualification for elected office, more important than their stances on the most important issues of the day. Ultimately, it’s how a candidate will vote and conduct himself (or herself) in office that should win the day.
And that’s largely the way the campaigns for the 1st Congressional District and other elected offices unfolded, which is a good thing. At the same time, it’s also good to know that our representative bodies are starting to become even more representative of those they serve. We hope that will continue to improve.