COLUMBIA — Crude “jokes” by an Upstate lawmaker have exposed sexist attitudes in the predominantly male Legislature, the lone woman in the state Senate and others said.
The remarks by Sen. Tom Corbin came only days before he called a legislative effort to ban convicted domestic abusers from a possessing firearms “nothing but a big gun grab.”
Corbin, R-Travelers Rest, brought down a nation’s ridicule and his female colleagues’ wrath after his remarks at a recent dinner in Columbia about state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, hit the Internet.
Corbin, a first-term senator, was dining with Shealy and other lawmakers when a rack of ribs arrived at the table and, noting that God created Eve from Adam’s rib, “joked” that women were “a lesser cut of meat.” Corbin also reportedly told others that after two years he’d managed to get Shealy wearing shoes, an apparent reference to women being kept barefoot and pregnant.
Corbin said Shealy was in on the joke, but she disabused him of the notion, telling him she’d taken enough from him and expressing her displease in a speech on the Senate floor.
Corbin apologized publicly, but later said Shealy “chose” to be offended — making Shealy livid.
“That statement he made was more of an insult to me than what he actually said because he basically took back his apology,” Shealy said. “I did not choose to get offended. He chose to say what he said.”
Corbin, a landscaping company owner and Sunday School teacher, did not respond to attempts to reach him for comment.
His “jokes” and backhanded apology show how difficult it is for women at the Statehouse, said Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
“The sad thing about Sen. Corbin’s joke is that this sexist attitude prevails in our state Legislature, leading to a failure to address many problems that disproportionately affect women in South Carolina,” Stewart said.
The way women are treated in South Carolina is no joke, Stewart said.
For example, senators working on toughening domestic violence laws were forced to take a step back Thursday to try to work out a compromise between those who want to keep batterers from possessing guns and those who fear it encroaches on Second Amendment rights after Corbin raised objections to the proposed ban.
In the Post and Courier’s ”Till Death Do Us Part” series last year about the epidemic of domestic violence in South Carolina, Corbin said guns weren’t the problem and that the answer was faith in Jesus Christ.
“A lot of times we’re not focused on the right thing,” Corbin said then. “We need to focus on what causes violence and try to stop that. There needs to be a lot more love for Jesus in the world, and I think that would curb a lot of violence.”
Corbin’s attitudes toward women show what advocates for domestic violence victims are up against, said Sara Barber, executive director of South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“His need to apologize and then immediately start blaming Sen. Shealy for the negative attention he’s receiving underscores to me that he truly doesn’t see any problem with what he said,” Barber said. “How are we going to change a culture of violence against women and girls while we have people in elected office who believe that women are “lesser” — it goes right to the root of the problem.”
Becky Callaham, director of Greenville-based Safe Harbor shelter for women, added Corbin’s comment “is exactly the unfortunate culture of minimizing women in South Carolina.”
“It makes me angry every time they say the ‘senator from Greenville,’” Callaham said of Corbin. “These are the type of people we have to deal with. The fact that he said it (the lesser cut of meat bit) shows he lacks respect for women. But the fact he said it with the assumption everyone’s in on his joke is appalling.”
Shealy said the timing of Corbin’s comments are unfortunate — for him. She plans to use them to press for strengthening the state’s domestic violence laws.
“When we’re talking about domestic violence, he chose to say that,” Shealy said. “Thank you, Tom Corbin, for sticking your foot in your mouth because this shows how too many feel about domestic violence.”
Laura Hudson, a victim’s rights advocate, said, in addition to sexism, there’s a general lack of politeness and civility under the dome.
“I don’t think it’s a big secret that he can be disrespectful,” Hudson said. “But that is unusual for those kind of comments to be made — to be that stupid.”
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said she has become acclimated to sexism in the Legislature over her 20 years as a lawmaker.
“And that’s not good because I probably should be more concerned than I am about it, but I don’t have time,” Cobb-Hunter said. “That would be like me whining about racism. What are you going to do? You just figure out another way.”
Nevertheless, the Orangeburg Democrat sympathizes with Shealy.
“I am so proud of her for speaking out about that it,” Cobb-Hunter said. “It would’ve been so much easier for her to just go along to get along.”
Staff reporters Glenn Smith and Doug Pardue contributed to this report. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.