SC Women Have Little Say in State Government. This Group Has a Plan to Change That.
It’s no small secret South Carolina women have little voice in state affairs.
It was national news in 2016 when the number of women in the state Senate quadrupled — from one to four. That figure will have increased by just two members at the start of the 2024 legislative session.
Women make up a little more than half the state’s population, yet they comprise less than 15 percent of the state Legislature. That ranks South Carolina among the bottom three nationally for women representation in state government.
It’s a disparity that has long been talked about in Palmetto State politics. One group now believes it has a plan to address it.
Ahead of the 2024 election cycle, the nonprofit, nonpartisan South Carolina Women in Leadership (SC-WIL) announced the launch of a comprehensive toolkit designed to equip women who are considering a run for office with everything they need to mount a campaign from the school board to the Statehouse.
The guide includes a month-by-month task list developed by a bipartisan cadre of state and national campaign strategists, starting with defining a candidate’s campaign-messaging strategy in December to springtime coalition-building, all the way to weathering the final weeks of competitive elections.
The launch of the toolkit comes one year after the number of women in the Statehouse dropped following a decade of gains — a decline that took place in a year issues like abortion were on the ballot in many red state races around the country.
But it is also the culmination of nearly a half-decade of training initiatives and recruitment efforts by SC-WIL, which now hopes to use the toolkit as a means to close the state’s political gender gap.
“Somebody told me this was the year of the woman,” said Barbara Rackes, CEO of SC-WIL. “How can you tell me that given where we are?”
Rackes hopes the toolkit won’t just equip women with the basics to run, but that it will give them what they need to win.
In addition to media training sessions led by figures like Columbia news anchor Judi Gatson, the program also offers candidates everything from budget templates and primers on fundraising platforms to tools for developing mailing lists. The toolkit includes several premade templates for candidates to produce their own mailers, palm cards and yard signs.
While women run for office, many lack the knowhow or connections to do so effectively, said Sara Ballard, chief operating officer for SC-WIL, leading many to feel like their initial run for office is little more than a “practice run.”
But women in politics can often feel like they’re running by themselves, whereas men enter the political arena and see nothing but other men willing to lend the support and expertise that comes from years of dominating state politics.
It also comes down to entrenched gender roles that can reinforce the idea for prospective candidates that a run for office is simply too much for them to handle in their already busy lives.
“I think women by nature, or more strategic, collaborative, and intentional about our next steps in life,” she added. “Maybe it’s because of the multitasking we do every day, whether it’s motherhood, a job and home life, elderly parents, you know, all the things that maybe a woman experiences.
The toolkit, she said, aims to reduce the barrier to entry for office by giving prospective candidates access to the same types of tools and advice a trained campaign manager would often give, helping them to not only make up the financial barriers to running but to spend more time actively running a campaign.
Andrea Fripp said she had plenty of time to do just that. She recently became the first Black woman elected to the Blythewood Town Council and is currently the only woman on the council.
Throughout the course of her campaign, she knocked on approximately 1,600 doors in order to secure a 38 percent victory in her four-way race Nov. 7.
The time investment, she said, was the difference-maker in her campaign, allowing her to break through from a relatively unknown entity to the top vote-getter in her small town of nearly 4,800 people. In fact, she claimed her fellow candidates were actually taken by surprise by the fact she was running an actual campaign.
“They had just never seen it,” she said.
But to get that free time, she had to spend several thousand dollars to hire a campaign manager, who was responsible for everything from purchasing yard signs to organizing her fundraising. And the plan they followed, she said, was similar to the one developed by SC-WIL.
“Had I had that, it would have saved me a lot of money,” she said.
With the toolkit, the group hopes to get more women elected not only to the state Legislature but to municipal and other local-level offices, working to develop a bench of qualified candidates to one day even the gender gap that continues to persist in Columbia.
“We want more women in our state Legislature,” Ballard said. “But we aren’t going to get that unless we elect more women to town councils and city councils and mayor’s offices.”
But doing so, Ballard said, requires empowering women candidates to believe they’re capable of winning.
When the organization started in 2018, Ballard said it began with a call seeking “qualified women” to run for office. They eventually stopped using that language, she said, not because there weren’t any, but because many simply did not believe they were qualified.
“People were shutting down right away,” she said. “They don’t realize the things they’re doing. Just because they’re not a CEO doesn’t mean you don’t have applicable knowledge of your communities and what everyday life is like in South Carolina.”
That approach was evident over the summer when the SC-WIL announced a recruitment initiative intended to triple the number of women filing to run and seeking appointment at all levels of government during the 2024 election cycle.
The ultimate goal, they claim, is to inspire women from all walks of life to run for public office, with the goal of installing at least 800 more women to the approximately 2,000 elected seats available across the state.
The toolkit, they claim, could also help to shift the current political landscape in South Carolina by reducing the financial barrier for female candidates to run. In a separate interview, Rackes said prospective financial partners and major donors have been reluctant to provide financial support to unproven female candidates as well, primarily because they feel they are unable to move the needle in any discernible way.
“They think that South Carolina is a lost cause,” said Rackes. “We don’t think that. But it’s a tough cause.”
It’s also a crucial time for women to be more involved in the conversation, Rackes said.
South Carolina ranks among the worst states for maternal mortality and intimate partner violence. It was rated the 44th-worst state for women in a 2021 paper by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Safety evaluating metrics from educational attainment to reproductive health access.
SC-WIL does not intend to endorse any particular party or policy position. While it recognizes issues like transgender participation in women’s sports and abortion have been top of mind in the Statehouse in recent years, Rackes said the primary focus of the group is to ensure women at least have a seat at the table, and that decisions on women’s issues involve women’s input.