Happy Birthday to SC Women in Leadership

April 15, 2021


Last week I went to a birthday party.  

It was a glorious spring day at Boyd Plaza in downtown Columbia, where South Carolina Women in Leadership (SC WIL) was celebrating its second birthday.

Two years earlier, a diverse group of 12 women had come together and “defined a multi-partisan strategy for encouraging women to lead,” Barbara Rackes, a local businesswoman and a founder of WIL, told the crowd.

Today the organization can boast of 100 Founders who each contributed $1,000  to build WIL’s foundation.  WIL has also won the support of corporate sponsors that include Aflac, Bank of America, BlueCross BlueShield of SC, Dominion Energy, Hunt Alternatives, Nephron Pharmaceuticals, and Verizon.

WIL’s mission is straightforward:   to increase race and gender representation at all levels of business, government, and community.

 Do we need more women in the SC legislature, where today only 17 percent of lawmakers are women, despite the fact that 51.6 percent of the state’s population is female?  Yes.

 Do we need more women representing South Carolina in the U.S. Congress?  Yes, we do. The SC Congressional delegation has been all-male since 1993. South Carolina has never sent a woman of color to the U.S. House of Representatives, nor a woman of any color to the U.S. Senate.

Do we need more women on corporate boards and school boards, city and county councils, and all types of community organizations?  Absolutely.  And, to move things along, WIL has created and manages the only comprehensive database of open seats on appointed boards and commissions at the city, county, and state levels.

It makes a tremendous difference when women’s voices are heard. Consider the state of Nevada, where women currently make up 60 percent of the 63-member legislature, much more than any other state.

 The result, says The Los Angeles Times, “can be measured in dollars and sensibilities.  Among the changes are new laws expanding access to healthcare and family planning, fortifying abortion rights, strengthening the penalties for domestic violence, and giving prosecutors more and better tools to fight sex crimes.”

 There is also a new law on the books in Nevada that toughens the requirement that women receive equal pay for equal work.  “Previous attempts failed in part,” deadpanned The LA Times, “because male legislators questioned whether gender discrimination was, in fact, a problem requiring legislative action.” 

Back in South Carolina, WIL has built an audience of more than 50,000 people statewide who receive its newsletters.  WIL has also conducted training for women “on subjects as diverse as presenting yourself professionally in a Zoom meeting to finding your personal leadership style,” says Rackes.

WIL has ambitious plans for Year 3: 

  • Building partnerships with state and national organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the Urban League, SC Counts and others to educate on redistricting;
  • Conducting non-partisan candidate training with the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University;
  •  Operating community-based leadership training with All in Together;
  •  Forging a partnership with The Wall Street Journal and its program on “the future of everything.”

There is more in the works:

  • With the help of the Knight Foundation and the SC Association of Counties, a digital platform called MatchBoard is being built through which citizens can apply to serve on county and municipal boards.
  • The Suzan D. Boyd Pathways to Leadership fund is being expanded to be used exclusively for scholarships and training.
  • A new partnership has been formed with Leanin, the global organization founded by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of FaceBook, to launch and expand a network of Circles of Women across the state.  These are groups of geographically and professionally-based women from diverse backgrounds working together to move South Carolina forward.

At last week’s birthday party, Barbara Rackes told a story of applying many years ago to become the second page in the SC Senate. The first question the clerk asked her was, “Can you type?”

I’ll add a story of my own.  (I can choose from oh, so many.)  While covering a meeting for one of the local newspapers in the early 1970s – my reporter’s notebook in hand – I was seated next to a male lawmaker.  We chatted a bit before I began scribbling busily in my notebook.  After a few minutes, the legislator leaned over and asked, “Now, whose secretary are you again, honey?”

SC WIL is working to make questions like these relics of the past.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).

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