Eunice “Tootsie” Holland had planned Wednesday to drive to Charleston to see her 94-year-old mentor, Mary Heriot, pop the cork on a bottle of champagne and toast “Madam President.”
Instead of celebrating Hillary Clinton’s presidency, the two mourned the election of Republican Donald Trump.
“It was a lot of crying,” said the 84-year-old Holland, who began working in 1972 with the National Organization for Women and later unsuccessfully pushed for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Like many S.C. women’s rights advocates, Holland was crushed by Tuesday’s election results, which she thought would shatter the glass ceiling above the country’s highest elected position.
But soon the devastation will be replaced by renewed determination, Holland said Wednesday.
“Today, I’m going to mourn, and tomorrow I’ll start working on trying to get a Women’s Equity Act here in South Carolina,” said Holland, referring to a proposal to guarantee women the same pay as men for equal work. “Am I ambitious or what?”
‘Can’t afford the luxury of wallowing in self-pity’
Trump’s election sends a message, said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
“From my perspective, it sent a signal to women that we dare not aspire to the highest office in the land,” she said.
In addition to a message about gender, Trump’s victory also sends a message about race, Cobb-Hunter said, noting the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, will hand over the White House to a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
While Cobb-Hunter said she does not believe in pity parties, she thinks Democrats should grieve Clinton’s loss. Then, she added, Democrats should use it as a teachable moment. “As a black woman in America, I can’t afford to be defeated,” she said. “As a black woman trying to get stuff done in South Carolina, I can’t afford the luxury of wallowing in self-pity.”
Cobb-Hunter says Democrats need to figure out their next move, coming up with a message that resonates with more voters, including women and white, rural communities.
“What we as Democrats have failed to do consistently is speak to women — working-class women — in a way that makes it clear that we care about them,” Cobb-Hunter said. “We (Democrats) are in this little bubble and we just repeat stuff to each other that sounds great and we look at tools that worked in the past.”
This election, for example, Democrats again targeted the urban areas that elected Barack Obama but Trump organized rural, white communities across the country. Now, Democrats need an agenda that addresses those rural communities, too, Cobb-Hunter said.
‘Shock and awe’
Sarah Leverette — who was born in 1919, a year before the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote — voted for Clinton for president Tuesday.
“It felt great,” Leverette, who will turn 97 next month, said Tuesday after voting. “It was kind of an answer to something that’s been in the back of my mind for many, many years. To make it real is sort of unreal.”
Wednesday morning’s headlines — that Trump had won the presidency — also seemed unreal.
“My first impression was shock and awe,” she said. “Then, my next impression was — shock and awe is disabling.”
Women’s rights advocates should keep their noses to the grindstone, Leverette said. “The first thing we’ve got to do is to realize that our only defense is a good offense,” she said.
Leverette, the third woman to graduate from the University of South Carolina’s law school, is used to being on the offense. After graduating, Leverette joined a law firm. But she said she was regarded more as a secretary than as an attorney. She left that job and went to work for the state Workers’ Compensation Commission.
Once, Leverette recalled, she was holding a workers’ comp hearing and a man walked in, asking, “ ‘Can you tell me where the commissioner is?’”
Leverette replied, “I am the commissioner.”
The man thought Leverette was the secretary.
At the time, people had “no concept of a woman being in a position like a judge,” Leverette recalled.
That is changing, she said. In 2000, Jean Toal was elected chief justice of the the the S.C. Supreme Court, the state’s highest court.
“It’s moving very slowly,” Leverette said of women in positions in power. “But it’s moving.”
Nationally, that movement stalled Tuesday with Clinton’s defeat. As a result, the future is more frightening, Leverette said, urging younger generations to pay close attention to government and politics.
“If you don’t pay attention to your government, it’s not going to pay attention to you,” she said.
Editor’s note: An original version of the story wrongly said the Equal Rights Amendment passed.