Beaufort Today -

This has been a sorry state for women

The hypocritical gulf between how we Southern men talk about and treat women has always been a source of great bewilderment to me.

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

On the other hand, we beat and kill women regularly, pay them less than men and expect them to hold down a job, raise our kids, cook, clean our houses and satisfy our sexual urges. Because we occasionally do the dishes or take the kids to school, we think we have done our part.

This may be an overstatement, but here are the numbers for South Carolina. Read ’em and weep.

Women earn 27 percent less than men. Twenty percent of women live below the poverty line and 36 percent 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 earn about $15,800 a year less than men.

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

South Carolina has the fifth-highest rate of women killed by men and 93 percent of these women are killed by people they know.

One would think that because women are 51.7 percent of the population, they would be well-represented in political office. Not so. Women are generally discouraged from running and instead are encouraged to be volunteers.

Nikki Haley’s election as governor was the exception, not the rule. She is only the fourth woman ever elected to statewide office. Only 13.5 percent of state legislators are women.

We have had only one woman elected to Congress and have never had a woman U.S. senator. Nationally, 27 percent of elected officials are women.

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

A recent report conducted 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, Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network. It is a new “statewide advocacy network that advances women’s and girls’ 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 board chair Jennet Robinson Alterman, it is “the right group, with the right people at the right time.”

WREN but grew out of several previous initiatives involved in women’s health issues. It has inherited a strong core of people with history, savvy, a mailing list and donor base. Thus, WREN has been able to quickly and effectively launch with strong membership across the state.

WREN’s leadership is an interesting combination. The old hands are best represented by Alterman, whom one member referred to as the “godmother of the movement.” Alterman was longtime director of the Center for Women, which was founded in Charleston in 1992. Her perspective is global.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan in the 1970s, she saw in the most basic sense that issues for women and girls were the same as in South Carolina: access to health care, education, economic empowerment, etc.

Board member Andrea Zucker represents another generation that has a different but complementary perspective. Andrea is a 30-something mother of three who says, “My views are not political, but human views.” She believes WREN’s work is important because “supporting individuals is the starting place… and we are not all starting at the same place.”

Though WREN launched before the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s presidency has supercharged new activism and engagement. CEO Ann Warner says there has been “a huge upsurge of five- or six-fold” in people attending WREN events since Election Day.

At a recent lunch honoring women who have been trailblazers in South Carolina, one WREN member said that from an early age every woman learns to be fearful of “that man” who would attack, threaten or bully them — and Donald Trump is that man.

Women across the nation have become active in reaction to Trump and WREN hopes to channel their energy and outrage into constructive action: more women running for office, greater focus on issues and a new army of activists committed to real and lasting change.

God knows we need it in South Carolina.

Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at phil@philnoble.com.

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