Do we need more women in local politics? Sunday’s editorial thinks so:
Looking around the meeting of Myrtle Beach City Council, Horry County Council and Horry County’s state legislative delegation on Monday, one thing soon became clear: Almost everybody looked the same.
Of the 30 people who make up those three governing bodies, two are black and just one was female. The rest? Twenty-seven middle-aged to older white guys. You read that correctly. Of the 30 elected officials who arguably wield the most power in the daily life of a Myrtle Beach resident, just one is a woman.
As that woman – City Councilwoman Susan Grissom Means – said this week, “I looked around on Monday and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
We couldn’t have said it better.
Not that we don’t appreciate the hard work of our male leaders. Many are wonderful representatives and do their jobs with diligence and dedication. And we do have many elected female leaders elsewhere on the Strand. Both the mayors of Conway and North Myrtle Beach are female, for instance, as are a number of council members and school board members in both Horry County and Georgetown County. But even when everybody is taken into account, women hold only about a sixth of elected seats in Horry County and less than a third of the seats in Georgetown County, paltry numbers for counties where more than half the residents are female.
Why is this important? At its core, it comes down to a fundamental issue of fairness in representation. But beyond that, electing more women also increases the chance that women’s views and women’s experiences will play a part in political decisions. Without more women in leadership, we can only wonder what we’re missing out on.
This is hardly just a local issue. The U.S. as a nation ranks 69th when it comes to women in national legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Countries such as Cuba, China, Afghanistan and Iraq regularly outpace us.
On the state level, South Carolina – embarrassingly – ranks dead last in the nation in terms of women in public office. Our legislature is only 8.8 percent female, and we are the only state being run by a single-gender legislative chamber – the S.C. Senate. Many groups, both state and national, are working to change that fact, including local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the state’s Legislative Women’s Caucus and the Southeastern Institute for Women in Politics. But there’s plenty of work yet to be done.
Why are we in this regrettable position? In the past, it could have been chalked up to gender bias among voters. But intriguingly, research is now showing that women and men have an equal chance of winning – if they run. The hurdle stopping many female candidates is not so much voter bias or a lack of skills, but just worry about the possibility of voter bias and less confidence in those skills. “I don’t think enough women think that they can do this kind of job,” Means said. “I think they’re hesitant to stick their necks out for something like this.”
In a 2008 report, “Why Are Women Still Not Running for Public Office?” researchers Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox came to much the same conclusion. After surveying men and women, the researchers found that while men and women were often just as qualified for an elected position, men are 65 percent more likely than women to think of themselves as qualified. Women are also less likely to believe they can win and more likely to believe that being a woman will be a detriment in a campaign. An astounding 12 percent of women ruled themselves out for public office completely just for being the “wrong” sex. In the face of such beliefs, it’s worth repeating the research conclusions cited above: Women perform just as well as men when they do run for office.
One other notable research finding? As Lawless and Fox wrote, “Women are just as likely as men to respond favorably to the suggestion of a candidacy, but they are less likely than men to receive it.” Men are simply urged to run more often. We’d like to change that, at least for today. Our communities are better served when their representative governments more closely represent them.
There are plenty of well qualified, successful women in our area who would serve our communities well. With local elections just ending and the next ones months away, there is plenty of time to consider and plan a run for office – local, statewide or national.
If you’re interested at all, here’s your nudge: Run. As Means said, “It really is not as intimidating as it sounds.”