By: Sara Leary
Edited By: Derek Legette
Every day that Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, has walked into the S.C. State House for the past eight years she has walked in as a minority – a woman.
She arrives at her small office in the Capitol complex around 9 a.m. and sometimes leaves as late as midnight. On a recent day, she walked in carrying a Louis Vuitton office tote, a purple leather portfolio overflowing with notes and a bundle of fresh flowers she stopped to pick on her way into the Blatt Building.
Brady says she makes a point to maintain her femininity in the male-dominated politics, but that it doesn't mean she loses focus on the important issues at hand.
This session, Brady is one of 16 women out of 124 House members. There are no women in the state Senate.
"We need a more diverse decision-making group," she said.
Since the 1990s, the number of South Carolina women in the Legislature has never topped 22, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. South Carolina is particularly interesting because the state has a woman governor yet very few women elected officials, said Debbie Walsh, director of the New Jersey center.
"States that are at the bottom for women in elected office are typically Southern and more conservative. South Carolina is the only state in the country, though, with a chamber empty of any women," Walsh said.
This year, however, her center and the Southeastern Institute of Women in Politics say research shows that women may have a better chance of getting elected.
"Because of the 2010 census every district in the country has been redrawn, creating both new and open seats," Walsh said. "Women have more success winning open seats according to our research."
Mary Ann Jacobs, the Columbia-based institute's president, says it's "a perfect storm."
Filing for South Carolina's June 12 primary ended March 30. No statewide offices are up for election this year, but all seven U.S. House districts will be on the ballot, as will 124 S.C. House seats and all 46 in the Senate.
The state Democratic and Republican parties released their official candidate lists April 9. The lists presented only eight women up for election this year: four Republicans and four Democrats. However, the institute lists at least 19 women who said they filed for legislative seats.
That compares with 35 who ran in 2008 when there were 179 U.S. House and state legislative seats open. In 2010, 37 women ran for the 140 seats on the ballot for Congress or the Legislature.
The institute is trying to encourage women to run by providing resources, training and connections with women who have held an office in the past.
Even if they are elected, women face challenges in office, Jacobs said, such as:
• Balancing the role of a mother with that of an elected official.
• Gaining respect from other legislators.
• Proving their worth and showing male members they mean business.
But it's worth trying to surmount the obstacles because "keeping women out of political office narrows the decision-making process," Jacobs said.
Brady said her male counterparts always treat her with respect and that being successful in the State House is "sort of about politics and it's all about relationships."
"This is not for the faint of heart," Brady said. "If you're the type of person that is offended by a dirty joke, it's not the place to be."
Walking into an 11 a.m. caucus meeting, Brady points out the lack of women even in the art on the State House walls. She said she counted only five paintings in the building that include women. But Brady said being a woman in elected office is something to be proud of and that if women take a stand and represent their constituents well, they will be successful.
Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said women tend to over prepare for meetings and have great organizational skills that are necessary to be effective.
"There are a small amount of us, but we are powerful," Erickson said. "They can't overlook us anymore."
Katrina Shealy, the former Lexington County Republican chairwoman who is seeking longtime GOP Sen. Jake Knotts' seat, said she is determined.
"Women are finding their voice. We aren't afraid to run," Shealy said. "If the boys can take it, we can too."
Shealy also ran against Knotts in 2008 but lost in a primary runoff by 1,859 votes out of 12,367 cast.
"Many women don't run because they don't want to put their families under media scrutiny," Shealy said.
Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, who has spent 12 years in the House, said putting her family under the media lens was difficult at first but that they understood.
"In politics, you have to realize that it is not just the candidate, but it's his or her family too. Social media allows people to hide behind what they say on blogs and the Internet," Allison said. "Everything is a bit more mean spirited nowadays than it was when I first started."
Allison, said that as a woman she is a minority in politics but has never felt intimidated or been treated unfairly by her male counterparts.