While the recent sexist remark by state Sen. Tom Corbin was stunning in its obtuseness, perhaps it shouldn’t have been so unexpected in such a male-dominated workplace. And maybe the only effective antidote is to elect more women to the Legislature.
Corbin, a Greenville Republican, made the remark over dinner at a Columbia restaurant earlier this month in the presence of state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, the only woman in the Senate. Corbin’s “joke” was that women are inferior because they are a “lesser cut of meat,” a reference to the passage in the Bible saying God made Eve from Adam’s rib.
Apparently this wasn’t the first time Corbin has insulted women in front of Shealy. She said she has told him she doesn’t find his jokes funny and has asked him to stop.
This time, however, she took it a step further. She asked for and got a public apology.
Well, it was something of an apology, one that fell under the category of “sorry if you were offended.”
But Shealy, to her credit, didn’t stop there. She rose on the Senate’s podium and responded to the apology with a message to the women of this state: “(Y)ou will experience roadblocks and challenges. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t give up. And don’t you dare let anyone tell you that you are less than what you are. We need you to help solve the problems we face. South Carolina needs you to step up and lead.”
Shealy said she felt nervous speaking out, and her voice shook as she spoke. But her message was vital.
Despite the fact that South Carolina has a woman governor, its record of electing women to leadership positions is pitiful. Only 11 women have ever been elected to the 46-member state Senate. Before Shealy, Linda Short, a Chester Democrat, was the only woman in the state Senate until she retired in 2008.
Other statistics are just as dismaying. Shealy is one of only 89 women legislators ever elected to the General Assembly, and only 23 women now serve, the most who have ever served at the same time.
Only five women have won election to statewide office. Another five have won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but four of those women were widows of congressmen, urged to finish their deceased husbands’ terms.
South Carolina used to rank dead last in national rankings of the percentage of women holding office in their state legislatures. With the election of a few more women, the state has risen to 47th.
Some would argue that Shealy was a bad sport, that she should not have made such a big deal out of Corbin’s remark, that should just go along with the crowd. Boys will be boys.
But Shealy clearly was not just miffed over a single joke. She was fed up with too much similar behavior. Corbin’s joke was symptomatic of a Legislature so dominated by males that, even when women are elected, they rarely are elevated to positions of power.
This reflects a larger problem, the lack of a network of powerful women who can nurture younger women to run for office. It reflects the lack of money flowing to potential women candidates. It reflects the lack of effort on the part of both political parties to recruit women candidates to run.
We could dismiss Corbin’s remark as a distasteful but insignificant joke. But the joke would be on South Carolina, which squanders the talents of half its population by setting up “roadblocks and challenges” to them and telling them they are less than what they are.
Shealy is right: We need women to help solve the state’s problems, and we need them to step up and lead. We can only hope that, despite the obstacles, more of them will choose to do so.