Two more women poised to join South Carolina’s ‘men’s club’

PROVIDED Mia McLeod, left, and Margie Bright Matthews

COLUMBIA — The number of women in one of South Carolina’s most exclusive “men’s clubs” could go up dramatically next year — from one to three.

Margie Bright Matthews recently won the Democratic primary for the vacant Senate District 45 seat formerly held by slain pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. State Rep. Mia McLeod, a Columbia Democrat, has announced her intention to seek the District 22 seat held by Joel Lourie, who does not plan to seek re-election in 2016.

Both districts are Democratic strongholds in a predominantly Republican state, making Matthews, a Walterboro attorney, and McLeod heavy favorites against GOP opponents.

If elected, they would increase the number of women in the Senate by 200 percent. The only woman now serving in the Senate is Republican Katrina Shealy of Lexington, who skirmished publicly with a colleague over his sexist remarks during the time the Senate was debating domestic violence legislation.

Including the 22 women in the House, South Carolina is tied with Tennessee at 12th in the nation with 23 female lawmakers in its Legislature. As a percentage of all lawmakers, that was fourth lowest in the country. And that was an improvement over 2014, when the percentage of female lawmakers in South Carolina’s Legislature was the second lowest in the nation.

The numbers are important, according to Kendra Stewart, political science professor at the College of Charleston, because some issues being tackled by lawmakers disproportionately affect the lives of women. These include domestic violence, sex trafficking and economic inequality.

“When women aren’t a part of the process, an important perspective is left out of the conversation,” Stewart said.

Shealy said she would welcome having more women in the Senate — before Shealy was elected, South Carolina had the only all-male Senate in the nation.

“I think women definitely look at things differently,” Shealy said. “I think we need women on some of the committees, where a woman’s opinion really matters.”

Those committees include medical affairs, which tackles issues like abortion and cervical cancer prevention, Shealy said.

Female lawmakers tend to be less unyielding than the men and more willing to work with members of the opposite party, said Karen Kedrowski, a political science professor at Winthrop University who is behind New Leadership South Carolina, a program that encourages young women to go into public service.

“Women often think, ‘Oh gee. I’m not ready,’ ” Kedrowski said of seeking public office. “You need to have a concerted effort going to encourage women to do this.”

Yet when they do, they tend to be movers and shakers. Shealy, for example, gave a pivotal speech about her sister’s narrow escape from her abusive husband that helped lead to passage of a law that toughened penalties for batterers, including a partial gun ban.

She also has become an advocate for abused children as a member of the Senate’s Department of Social Services Oversight Subcommittee.

More women in the Legislature could also change the atmosphere in the Statehouse — one lawmaker resigned recently after allegations of sexual harassment. Causing offense with sexist comments, like those of Upstate Sen. Tom Corbin about Shealy being a “lesser cut of meat,” could no longer be brushed off as one woman being too sensitive, Stewart said.

“If we have a completely male-dominated legislature, the message it sends to girls is that there isn’t a role for women in policy making,” Stewart said. “The more women we have in legislative positions, the more likely we are to get women in other important roles.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at (843) 577-7111.