Women's influence waning in state's General Assembly

COLUMBIA -- Women's influence in the General Assembly suffered at least a temporary blow in Tuesday's primaries, as the S.C. Senate could again become an all-men's club, harkening back to 1992.

On paper, Tuesday's primaries held the potential to be a watershed moment for women in the Senate, as nine female candidates were on the ballot.

There are only two women in the Senate -- Linda Short of Chester, who is retiring, and Catherine Ceips of Beaufort, who was defeated. By the time all the ballots were counted, there was no guarantee there would be any women in the chamber in January.

The unofficial results assure South Carolina will hold on to its worst-in-the-nation ranking for electing women to public office.

"It was personally disappointing," said former congresswoman and state Sen. Liz Patterson, who held office from 1979-1986. "We're certainly not going forward."

Patterson said the state continues to have problems attracting female candidates to run for office mainly because women, who are pressured to balance children and careers, struggle with the choice to also take on politics.

Patterson knows the pressures well, remembering driving back home to Spartanburg each night from Columbia to feed her young children and family as a state senator.

"Women just don't want to lose," said Patterson, who went on to serve three terms in Congress from the 4th Congressional District.

South Carolina's difficulty in electing women to office is rooted in many women choosing traditional roles over political roles, said Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University.

But women who choose to run face obstacles not all men face, including a tougher time getting financial backing, establishing name recognition and winning lower-level offices that build good will, Vinson said.

"That's tough to get past, but most of these women (who lost Tuesday) were not fringe candidates," Vinson said. "They were serious candidates who had local service behind them and people had heard of, and that will make it easier for them to jump back in."

Margaret Gamble of West Columbia may be an example of that. She is a Republican who will face Lexington Sen. Nikki Setzler in the fall and who served in the House from 1992-2000.

"It is discouraging, but I think you have to take the whole picture into account," Gamble said.

That picture reflects the fact that S.C. women still don't run for office in the numbers that men do, she said, and many women continue to occupy the kinds of low-paid jobs that make serving in the Legislature difficult, if not impossible.

"Quite frankly, society still frowns on a woman who would decide to leave her young children at home to go to Columbia," Gamble said. State lawmakers earn about $13,000 annually in pay for their duties, spread over six months, she noted.

All is not lost yet, though.

Two women Lexington County's Katrina Shealy and Rock Hill's Leah Moody could still land seats in the 46-member body this fall, if they survive runoffs in two weeks.

Guaranteed spots on the November ballot are Gamble and Karen Michalik of Dalzell. But Gamble and Michalik, both Republicans, face two of the Senate's most veteran Democrats, Setzler of West Columbia and Sen. Phil Leventis of Sumter.

Setzler and Leventis have 58 years between them in the Senate, and if they win in the fall, will watch Senate proceedings from the front row, reserved for each party's longest-serving lawmakers.

S.C. Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson is hoping Gamble and Michalik can replace the Democratic men they'll face.

"We try not to look at it in terms of race, creed or gender," Dawson said, while also acknowledging the barriers women still face in serving. The GOP has tried to recruit women, he said, with only modest success.

Women in the S.C. Senate

How many have served over the past 20 years:

• 1988: 2 females (1 Democrat, 1 Republican)

• 1998: 3 females (2 Democrats, 1 Republican)

• 2008: 2 females (1 Democrat, 1 Republican)

• January 2009: Anywhere from 0-4 (1 Democrat, 3 Republicans still on ballots)

-- Source: The (Columbia) State