I was out at Bowens Island on a beautiful afternoon last week to see Anne Peterson Hutto sworn in as the new representative of House District 115 (James Island and Folly Beach). A small group of Democratic supporters and officials were on hand for the event. State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis administered the oath of office, while Peterson Hutto's husband and children looked on. The event was marred only by the voracious no-see-'ems which swarmed out of the marsh to attack the festive group.
With her swearing in, Peterson Hutto becomes one of 17 women in the General Assembly. The state Senate lost its only female member in November. South Carolina has the lowest percentage of female legislators — 9.44 — of any state in the nation.
According to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, it takes 30-percent female participation on governing boards, councils, and legislatures before those bodies begin to change and adopt new agendas and perspectives. More than 30 percent is certainly welcome, but not much changes with less than 30 percent. This goes for both private and public institutions.
I think it is no accident that Scandinavian countries have the highest percentage of women in their national legislatures, led by Sweden with over 40 percent. These countries as a group also lead the world in most quality-of-life indices, such as longevity and education levels, lack of crime and violence. They have the most advanced social safety nets, including health care and unemployment insurance and family-friendly employment policies.
Compare this scenario with, say, South Carolina, which ranks No. 1 in the nation for the number of women killed by their husbands, boyfriends, or partners. We have a number of other shameful statistics to our credit.
According to the annual Morgan Quitno Press report, S.C. ranks 46th among the states in general livability. That same report said we were the sixth most dangerous state in terms of violent crime and the 43rd healthiest state. Our syphilis rate is three times the national average, and we lead the nation in syphilis-exposed babies. We are perennially in the top 10 states for rates of infant mortality, deaths from HIV/AIDS, and deaths from cardiovascular diseases.
South Carolina is tied with Tennessee for the distinction of having the fifth highest percentage of obese adults, which helps explain why we lead the nation most years in the percentage of people who die from strokes.
We rank 47th for child well-being, according to the annual Kids Count Databook and No. 4 in a new federal index called "difficulty finding food." S.C. ranks 47th for the percentage of high school graduates and 45th for the percentage of college graduates in the population.
Oh, yes, and did I mention that we have the third shortest average life expectancy in the nation?
I could go on with pages of statistics, but you get the picture.
Most of these numbers reflect a general lack of interest by S.C. politicians and policy makers in such areas as health care, child care, education, and public safety. Of course, these are the very areas with which most women concern themselves in their personal lives, but they have traditionally been unable to bring their personal perspectives and concerns into the public arena. Law and culture have barred women from politics and public debate.
In their absence, the men of the world have been free to squander their public resources on war, armaments, sports arenas, and other boy's toys. In South Carolina, we have seen tens of millions of our dollars go to the preservation of a Confederate submarine and the purchase of Civil War documents, all to satisfy the adolescent military fantasies of a certain powerful state legislator.
The conference which established the 30-percent goal for female participation in national legislatures also called for a more equitable sharing of domestic responsibilities. According to the conference report, "A more equal sharing of those responsibilities between women and men not only provides a better quality of life for women and their daughters but also enhances their opportunities to shape and design public policy, practice, and expenditure so that their interests may be recognized and addressed."
So gender equality, like charity, begins at home.
I don't know how Peterson Hutto and her husband David divvy up the chores around their house. She's an attorney; he's a chef. But somehow she found time to be a legislator. We need a lot more like her — nearly 40, in fact — before we reach the 30 percent goal. And when we get there, I hope we don't stop. This state has a lot of catching up to do, and we won't do it with the kind of good ol' boys we've been electing for generations.