South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace

South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace discusses being sexually assaulted by a friend at age 16. Mace advocated for exceptions for rape and incest to the proposed six-week abortion ban. Brad Nettles/Staff

When state Rep. Nancy Mace decided to share her personal story of being raped at 16, she thought the speech would make her fellow Republicans think twice about an abortion bill.

Weeks later, she felt targeted instead.

On Monday, the House Republican Caucus will decide how to respond to the recent actions of Rep. Josiah Magnuson, who last week distributed a postcard and a letter to lawmakers that described rape as a "misdeed of the parent."

Magnuson, R-Campobello, shared the literature with other state lawmakers two weeks after Mace gave a pair of 10-minute floor speeches in which she successfully advocated for the inclusion of exceptions for rape and incest in a proposed six-week "fetal heartbeat" abortion ban bill — efforts which have gained traction in states like Georgia and Alabama.

After finding the postcard on her desk, Mace, a Daniel Island Republican, wrote a 185-word Facebook post blasting the language of the handout for equating "rapists" with the term "parent" and characterizing rape as a "misdeed." 

The dispute didn't end there.

The following day, Magnuson distributed a letter from Carlotta Jackson, one of his constituents who is also affiliated with Personhood SC.

The letter, which directly addressed Mace's Facebook post, questioned whether she "has the mental capacity" to understand their statement and also clarified the group's use of the term "parent" in the postcard.

"Our preferred term is 'sperm donor' because that is all he is — a 'sperm donor' — not a father or a parent in the emotional use of these words," the letter stated.

Mace called Magnuson's decision to share such writings inappropriate and disrespectful to women and survivors of sexual assault. 

"No woman chooses to or asks to be raped," Mace told The Post and Courier this week. "By putting that on people's desks, you are perpetuating a stereotype of rape that is disgraceful, that is ignorant and that is disingenuous toward women."

From assault to The Citadel

Before this abortion debate, Mace was better known as the trailblazing first woman to graduate from The Citadel's Corps of Cadets. She co-wrote a book about the experience called "In the Company of Men: A Woman at The Citadel."

Her foray into politics came after running a media and public relations firm that boasted clients like Tim Scott and Mick Mulvaney. She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, failing to secure the Republican nomination in 2014 against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Despite the loss, her interest in politics remained. From September 2015 until August 2016, she worked as coalitions director and field director for Donald Trump's South Carolina presidential campaign. In a 2018 special election, Mace won her Daniel Island Statehouse seat. 

This week, she called her decision to publicly share her story as a survivor of sexual assault one of the hardest things she has ever done. Mace, 41 and a mother of two, said it took her 25 years to speak openly about the trauma.

"It took me a long time to say that it wasn't my fault. That I didn't cause it. That it happened," Mace said.

Mace said she was also sexually assaulted when she was 14. After that assault, Mace blamed herself rather than her attacker.

When she was 16, Mace said a friend and classmate pinned her down and assaulted her even as she yelled no. She told only two people about it: Her mother and her best friend.

Mace said she didn't report it to the police because she was afraid and ashamed about what people would think.

The attack was largely why she dropped out of high school at 17 and later began taking classes at Trident Tech.

During that time, Mace said she "faded away."

"I was not the strong, resilient little girl that my parents knew and loved. I was completely different. It was the hardest time in my life and I wasn't sure how I was going to get through it," she said.

When The Citadel announced it would begin accepting women, Mace said earning a degree from the military college became something she had to prove to herself she could do. She now credits the school with saving her life.

"It's hard for women who are strong, like I am, in the way that something like this affects us. A lot of times we blame ourselves. It's something you can't believe happened, and you ask yourself, 'How did I let this happen to me?' It's very difficult to overcome," she said.

"But I feel it is incumbent upon us as women, as Republicans and as lawmakers to share these stories, to be compassionate to victims, and to give them a voice."

Possible discipline 

Mace says she is against abortion but also believes the government does not have the right to tell a victim of rape or incest they should not have the right to one.

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Magnuson, who is also the main sponsor of a so-called "personhood bill" that effectively outlaws all abortions by extending legal rights to a fetus at conception, said the literature he shared was not meant as a personal attack on Mace.

By House rules, anything distributed on legislators' desks must have a member’s name on it. The postcard was the latest in a series of anti-abortion literature created by Personhood SC that Magnuson said he's been handing out this session to support his bill.

"It didn’t have anything to do with any legislator. It wasn't intended as a personal attack. It was to defend the unborn children we believe are not being defended," he said.

Regarding the letter, Magnuson said he does not share the views expressed "but I do believe that the unborn child, no matter how it is conceived is human and deserves equal protection under the law," Magnuson said.

He also said he can’t control what Personhood SC posts online and is not a member himself.

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said he's going to remind caucus members next week of the House rule requiring them to "act with decorum at all times" and will make sure they know what that means. 

"That applies to both verbal and written actions," Simrill said. "We're going to disagree on issues, but impugning the integrity or questioning the character of any member is out of line. … Anything that calls out a member, questions their character or impugns their integrity won’t be tolerated."

Simrill said he didn't see the letter himself until Mace brought it to him; he agreed with her, telling Mace, "You are absolutely correct. That is out of line."

Simrill's lesson will serve as a warning. Magnuson faces no immediate punishment.

Mace said she wants Magnuson to apologize to her, as well as to the House Republican Caucus. She also said she wants him to acknowledge that what he did was wrong.

If he doesn't apologize, Mace said she plans to address the matter herself on the Statehouse floor.

"And as a woman, I want to be treated with honor, dignity and respect, as any of my male colleagues would be," Mace said.

The caucus meets Monday when state lawmakers return to Columbia primarily to wrap up their work on the budget.

The abortion bill passed the House this year and heads to the Senate in 2020. 

Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.