Does dumbing down the definition of ‘powerful’ make us feel better?

04/08/2014 11:00 AM

04/08/2014 10:41 AM

I promise I’m not going to make a regular practice of sharing my email, but I continue to be fascinated by the response to my contention in a blog post last week that Gov. Nikki Haley and Chief Justice Jean Toal are the only powerful women we’ve ever had in S.C. government.

Obviously, who you consider “powerful” depends on how you define “powerful.” No one has convinced me that I was wrong, largely because the arguments for expanding the list require that I expand (and thus dilute) my definition of “powerful.” And I don’t see what positive is accomplished by dumbing down the definition just to create a more inclusive list. But I’m funny like that.

As I explained to a friend on Monday, it’s important to keep in mind that “my beginning point of discussing powerful is a governor and a chief justice. On the state government level, I would put a speaker in that category, our previous (but not our current) Senate president pro tempore, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, and some Ways and Means Chairmen — though maybe not Brian White — at least not yet. Maybe an attorney general; maybe not. Maybe a Senate or House majority leader — though certainly not all of THEM. And that’s about it.”

Still, I realize that there is a certain constituency that feels strongly that I have slighted other influential women in our state, and so I’m passing along another thoughtful response:

Dear Cindi,

Regarding women and power in SC government, I would add several other women. Two that spring to mind in education, alone, would be Barbara Nielsen and Inez Tennenbaum? Ms. Tennenbaum made a big difference in education, at least in focusing attention on some of our failing schools. And what about legislators Irene Rudnick and Harriett Keyserling? They raised awareness about women being involved in government and certainly gained greater respect for those who “took the plunge” into the “dirty business of politics.” Rudnick and Keyserling focused on issues and substance and not necessarily “show,” and perhaps that’s why many would not consider them “powerful.” They looked long and hard at policies and systems in toto, and didn’t just react to the immediate and lour; they also urged other women to become more “self-determining” in matters that affected their lives by advocating their involvement in the political arena at even the lowest levels. …

Influence is power, and these women have it. Their work--and that of a number of women today--has been instrumental in bringing about many changes in governance in South Carolina--indeed, power in another form. Their support of other women certainly helped empower many to get involved in politics, if not yet through holding public office, then in educating and preparing themselves for that responsibility in the future.

For example, many women who have been involved in the League of Women Voters have worked for and vigorously supported issues important to our state: nuclear materials at the Savannah River Plant (Mary Kelly, Suzanne Rhodes), public health (Barbara Moxon), criminal justice reform, elections—currently a big issue in Richland County government (Marci Andino, Barbara Zia), environment and conservation, ethics reform (Lynn Teague, JoAnne Day), etc. (There are male members who are also working diligently on several issues.) A few have served at the national League level: Keller Barron, who is still very active in the Columbia and State Leagues; Dr. Janelle Rivers, an education professional, to name just two.

Were it not for such women in power positions in the League (and some other organizations) studying issues and supporting positions on them—from behind the scenes, many initiatives that come before the Legislature would have bitten the dust. Examples the focus on SC’s “Corridor of Shame” and the state’s educational deficits, including funding; diversity in the state’s judiciary (Sarah Leverette); transportation (Susan Richards, and Lill Mood in the Midlands), and getting women onto juries. League leaders played a major, though futile, role in working for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to, most recently, issues of voter ID and the potential restrictions on citizens’ ability to exercise their right to vote. And they’ve made major differences at local levels of government in their respective parts of the state, such as, in the last few years, the library referendum and the transportation penny in Richland County.

I’ve mentioned just a few arenas in which women became active in order to bring about changes in policy and governance. I focused on a few who have worked long and hard in the League of Women Voters because I am most familiar with that non-partisan organization. However, there are many women working through other groups and organizations, including political parties, faith groups, non-profits, civic and service sororities to effect government changes through education and advocacy and for policy and systems improvements. …

Selecting “powerful women in SC Government” depends on how one defines “power,” but I HOPE that definition can be expanded to include those who act on a more subtle level, who go about the arduous work of change in methodical and reasoned—though no less powerful—ways, than simply holding a visible public office. Expanding the definition beyond the obvious window dressing of power would certainly do much to inspire young women today to get interested in government, to become involved in the work and responsibility of government service, and to be prepared to lead in the future.

Sincerely yours,

Sej Harman


The one thing that jumps out at me in this letter is the suggestion that what would inspire young women to get involved in government is knowing that there have been powerful women in our state. Which seems sort of backwards to me:

I would think young women would be more inspired to get involved in government if they knew there had not been many powerful women in our state. And I don’t quite understand how pointing to sincere, hard-working women who have toiled in futility would make anyone, male or female, want to follow in their footsteps.

But maybe that’s just me.

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