The sorry state of women in our state

By: By Phil Noble - Contributing Columnist

It has always been a source of great bewilderment to me the huge hypocritical gulf between how we as Southern men talk about women – and how we treat them.

Our historic culture is that we put women on a pedestal, we dress them in hoop skirts, we praise the Scarlet O’Hara strong women types, are chivalrous defenders of the virtues of Southern womanhood, always looking to help a fair damsel in distress – and on and on.

On the other hand, we beat and kill women regularly, work them like a borrowed mule, pay them less than men, expect them to hold down a job, raise our kids, cook and clean our house, satisfy our sexual urges – and on and on.

And, because we occasionally do the dishes or take the kids to school, we think we have done our part.

Yes, this may be an overstatement but here are the numbers for South Carolina … read ‘em and weep.

Economics – Women earn 27% less than men; 20% of women live below the poverty line and 36% of households headed by women live below the poverty line. Regardless of age, women are more likely to be left out of the labor force than men. Women who do work full-time earned approximately $15,800 per year less than men.

Health – South Carolina is 12th in the nation in teen pregnancy rates, 5th in the nation for STDs and maternal mortality rates are above the national average.

Crime and Violence – South Carolina has the 5th highest rate of women killed by men and 93% of these women are killed by people they know.

Politics – One would think that because 51.7% of the state’s population are women, that women would be well represented in political offices. Not so. Women are generally discouraged from running for office and instead are encouraged to be ‘volunteers.’

Nikki Haley’s election to governor is the exception not the rule. She is only the fourth woman ever elected to any statewide office – Nancy Stevenson was Lt. Governor (1978-82) and Superintendents of Education were Inez Tenenbaum (1998-06) and Molly Spearman (2014 – present). And, only 13.5% of the members of the state legislature are women.

On the federal level, we have had only one woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Elizabeth Patterson (1986-92), and we have never had a woman U.S. Senator. By comparison, nationally 27% of elected officials are women.

Setting aside all of the moral, ethical and political arguments for greater gender equality in our state, there is also a hard, dollars and cents argument about improving the economy of our state.

A recent report commissioned by WREN (more on them later) and conducted by the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina found that “If women were to help meet the workforce shortage in South Carolina across the occupation spectrum and increase their overall presence in the state’s workforce from the current level of 48.3% to 54% by 2025, this could generate up to $5.2 billion in new annual statewide economic activity and reduce the pay gap between men and women from 27% to 19%.”

Despite all the bleak numbers, there is reason for optimism.

There is a new kid on the block – WREN, Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network. They are a new ‘statewide advocacy network that advances women’s and girl’s opportunities across multiple issue areas, from health to education to economic opportunities to freedom from violence to leadership and civic engagement.’

WREN holds great promise. In the words of WREN’s Board Chair Jennet Robinson Alterman, it is “the right group, with the right people at the right time” and they are positioned to have a real and lasting impact.

First the right group. WREN did not just suddenly appear one day but grew out of several previous initiatives that were involved in women’s health issues. This has given WREN a leg up in that it has inherited a strong core group of people with history, savvy, a mailing list and donor base. Thus, WREN has been able to quickly and effectively launch statewide with strong membership across the state.

Next, the right people. WREN’s leadership is an interesting combination of ‘old hands’ and ‘next generation’. The old hands are best represented by Alterman who one WREN member referred to as the ‘godmother of the movement’. Alterman was long time Director of the Center for Women which was founded in Charleston in 1992. Her perspective on women and girls’ issues is global. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, she saw that in the most basic sense, the issues of women and girls there were the same as in South Carolina – access to health care and education, economic empowerment, etc.

WREN Board member Andrea Zucker represents another generation of women who have a different though complementary perspective. Andrea is a 30 something mother of three school-aged children and she describes her motivation saying, “My views are not political but human views.” She believes that WREN’s work is important because “supporting individuals is the starting place … and we are not all starting at the same place.”

And, the right time. Although WREN launched prior to the 2016 election, Donald Trump has been a catalyst that has supercharged women’s new activism and engagement. WREN’s CEO Ann Warner says that there has been “a huge upsurge of five or six-fold” since election day of people attending WREN events around the state.

At a recent WREN lunch honoring women who have been trailblazers in South Carolina, one WREN member explained this surge by saying that from an early age, every woman learns to be fearful of ‘that man’ who would sexually attack, threaten or bully them – and Donald Trump is that man.

And therein lies the hope, promise and power of WREN.

Women across the state (and nation) have become active and energized in reaction to Trump and WREN hopes to be the vehicle to channel this energy and outrage into constructive action – more women running for office, greater focus on issues of women and girls and the activation of a new army of activists committed to real and lasting change.

God knows we need it in South Carolina.

By Phil Noble

Contributing Columnist

Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the SC Press Association.

Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the SC Press Association.