South Carolinians elected more women into the S.C. House of Representatives this week than at any time since 1975.
As promising as it is, theres still a huge gap, said Karen Kedrowski, professor and chair of Winthrop Universitys political science department.
The Palmetto State also elected one female senator this week. For the past four years, South Carolina has been the only Legislature in the nation with no women in the state Senate.
Of the 124 House seats in Columbia, women will hold 21 in January, including newcomers Mandy Powers Norrell, a Democrat from Lancaster Countys District 44, Raye Felder, a petition candidate with Republican Party backing, from York Countys District 26 and MaryGail Douglas, a Democrat from District 41 which includes Chester County.
State Rep. Deborah Long, an Indian Land Republican, was re-elected to a fourth term in District 45, which includes parts of Lancaster and York counties.
When women run for office, they have as much a chance of winning as do similarly-situated men, Kedrowski said.
Many women on the ballot this year were incumbents or ran without opposition of the 10 races where women ran against men, female candidates secured six seats.
Kedrowski teaches a class at Winthrop called Women in Politics and has done research on public policy and media coverage of female politicians and womens issues such as health coverage, particularly for breast cancer.
Survey responses, she said, show that women hate to fundraise for political campaigns and they are deterred by the mudslinging that happens during election cycles. But, in those same surveys, Kedrowski said, just as many men say they dislike those same aspects of politics.
Two deterrents that dont affect men in the same way, Kedrowski said is the double burden of family and work life and a womans belief that shes not as qualified as a man to run for office.
Typically, women need more coaxing than men do to enter politics, she said. Shes found that on average, women are asked seven times by political parties to put their name on the ballot before they actually decide to run.
Women are always telling themselves in the back of their head I need more experience, she said.
Societal advancements in the workplace, Kedrowski said, mean that women dont face as many hurdles as they once did in many feeder careers that lead to running for political office such as practicing law.
But those working women are still chiefly responsible for many family activities, she said, such as packing school lunches for kids, nursing sick family members and helping with homework.
The double burden of career and family means many women think they simply dont have the time to be a politician, she said.
Lancasters Powers Norrell is a bankruptcy attorney and municipal attorney for the town of Kershaw and city of Lancaster. She has two children ages 10 and 13.
Powers Norrell said her children were her motivation to run for public office.
She ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat four years ago against then-state Rep. Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney, of Indian Land, who would unseat U.S. Rep. John Spratt in 2010, won re-election to his congressional post Tuesday.
This week, Powers Norrell ran against two men in S.C. House District 44 and captured about 57 percent of the vote.
Her husband, Mitch, has dubbed the counties situated between Columbia and the N.C. border the Corridor of Dames, referring to the number of women representing counties such as Chester, Fairfield, Greenville, Kershaw, Lancaster, Spartanburg and York.
Women in politics legislate differently than men, she said.
Anybody who says theres not a difference is not looking at reality, Powers Norrell said.
But Im not one of those who would say we need to elect women just for the sake of having women we need good women (in office).
Six of the 21 women who will serve next year in the state House are first-term legislators. Currently, there are 17 women serving in the House and no female senators.
Katrina Shealy was elected this week to the state Senate in District 23 keeping South Carolina from having the only Legislature in the nation for the fifth year in a row without female senators. Shealy won as a petition candidate against state Sen. Jake Knotts.
Four other women ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in the 2012 general election this year.
S.C. had more female senators between 1981 and 2008 than it did the past four years. The state has ranked last in the nation the past 10 years for its proportion of women in state legislatures.
Results are not official yet for all state races nationally but Kedrowski said she doesnt expect the state to move up from the bottom of the pack.
State Rep. Rita Allison of Spartanburg has seen the number of female legislators fluctuate since she entered office in 1993 with 18 other women. She spent 10 years in the House before 2002 and served again continuously since re-election in 2008.
Since Allisons first election, female representation in the Legislature has mainly dwindled picking up in 2009 with 17 women serving in the House.
Female leaders tell her that they dont run for office because they have young children to take care of and political campaigns are mean-spirited, Allison said.
Women are gaining more leadership positions in careers outside of government. More responsibility at work and negative campaigning may be the reason more women dont run for office, Allison said.
House District 26s Felder said running as a petition candidate not the fact that shes a woman was her greatest challenge. She and Shealy were the only petition candidates who successfully ran against party-backed candidates for legislative seats this year.
Felders waited until age 50 to run for office, she said, because she had the family responsibility to take care of her mother-in-law, who had suffered a stroke. Women are typically the caregivers, Felder said, and, for female leaders, that often takes priority over running for political office.
I do believe we will see more women in politics as we go forward, Felder said.
I really dont think gender can hold you back.
Anna Douglas 803-329-4068