In Lancaster County politics, men have always dominated, but women have made gains in recent years

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By Jenny Hartley

If elected president, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York will be the first woman chosen for the country's top office.

Nancy Pelosi is the first female speaker of the U.S. House.

If elected state senator, Lancaster attorney Mandy Powers-Norrell will make history of her own. A woman has never been elected to represent Lancaster County in the state Senate or House in Columbia. There have been few women candidates to even make a run for the state offices.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, South Carolina ranks last in the nation for women at the Statehouse. The state has one woman Democrat and one Republican among the 46 senators. Of the state's 124 House members, 13 are women (eight Democrats and five Republicans). That means 8.8 percent of the state Legislature is female.

The state has had five women U.S. Congress members since the 1930s, with the last, Elizabeth "Liz" Patterson, serving from 1987 to 1993.

Gender 'not a major issue'

When state Sen. Linda Short of Chester retires this year, there will only be one other woman in the state Senate. Short encouraged Powers-Norrell to make a run for senator.

But Powers-Norrell said she isn't making gender a big deal in her campaign.

"I think the issues are the same, whether you're male or female," she said. "It's not a major issue in the campaign, but I would be very glad to see more women in politics."

Powers-Norrell said she remembers working on the state Senate campaign of Mary Barry, one of the few women to run for state office locally. Barry also served on Lancaster County Council and is now principal of Andrew Jackson High School.

Powers-Norrell's mother, Beverly, owned a craft store on S.C. 903. Though only in elementary school, Powers-Norrell handed out Barry's campaign cards to customers at the store, and that made a big impression.

Powers-Norrell serves as the city of Lancaster's attorney, and points out that the city administrator, Helen Sowell, is a woman. Women often take on the primary responsibility of caring for their families, and that may be a barrier to running for office, Powers-Norrell said.

"I don't think it's because we're adverse to electing women," she said.

Powers-Norrell is the only Democrat thus far to announce intentions to run for the District 16 Senate seat being vacated by Republican Greg Gregory after 16 years. State Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-District 45, said he plans to run for the seat. He has been endorsed by Gregory and Gov. Mark Sanford.

More female role models now

Barry, who served on County Council from 1980 to 1988, doesn't think Lancaster County is adverse to electing women. She was the first woman elected to County Council.

But it may be more difficult for women to break into politics, she said.

It may have been more difficult when she ran for office.

Barry had four children ages 3 to 9 and was a stay-at-home mom when she ran for county office. Because she didn't work, she didn't have the network of business associates around the community to back her candidacy.

She barely won her first term on council, but won by a landslide for her second term.

"I feel that in Lancaster County, people weigh your personality and what you're doing for your constituents more than your regional origin or gender," Barry said.

Some people still likely vote on gender, ethnic or region lines, but Barry said she doesn't believe that was an issue in her case.

One of the few comments Barry heard regarding gender during her time in politics was during her Senate run. A woman told Barry that she was too nice to go to Columbia and get involved in "dirty politics."

She believes she lost to Caldwell "Red" Hinson not because she was a woman, but because Hinson was "an institution here, an established politician."

Woman now have more role models to follow when considering a run for office, Barry said.

"The culture has changed a lot for women in the past 25 years," she said, adding that she'd like to see more women in local and state offices because they bring a different perspective.

"There's a difference in the way men and women look at the world," Barry said. "This is not a universal statement, but I think women in general look farther into the future."

Breaking down barriers

Polly Jackson, former chairwoman of County Council, had two barriers to break when she ran for county office - race and gender. She was the first black - man or woman - to be elected to council in 1990.

"Someone told me, 'You killed two birds with one stone,'" Jackson said, with a laugh.

Jackson said the men on County Council were cordial and kept her in the loop, although sometimes she felt the "good ol' boy system" was still in place. There were a couple of council members who she believes wanted to exclude her from decisions - not necessarily because she was black or a woman, but because she had not been part of that system.

Jackson said in her experience traveling the state as a County Council member, she found that Lancaster County is progressive when it comes to electing women and supporting women candidates.

"I just think there haven't been women to run," she said.

Lancaster County Probate Judge Sandy Estridge was the first woman elected to her position.

"I think everyone was open to a female running," Estridge said.

Gender wasn't an issue when she ran for the position in 1994, but "it seems like, financially, men do have a better network (in running a campaign), and I don't know why. But I've had some great support from men, too."

Estridge said her path in politics was made easier by women such as Barry and Jackson, who achieved firsts with their election wins.

"I think what's helped is who came before us," Estridge said. "They did such a good job in their positions."

Encouraging women as candidates

Powers-Norrell said she's inspired by Ruth Ann Minner, the governor of Delaware who had a GED and later worked her way through the ranks of Delaware state government to become her state's top elected official.

But Powers-Norrell said she has a role model closer to home - her mother, Beverly, the first woman to work in the computer room of the Springs Industries Customer Service Center. She not only worked, but kept her house immaculate, had supper ready when the kids and husband came home and ran her own business.

"It was very important for me to see her in that leadership role," Powers-Norrell said. "She did it all."

Powers-Norrell has two children - son, Teddy, 8, and daughter, Emma, 5. She hopes other women will see her as a role model.

"I'm hoping my campaign will inspire other women to run, and show them that they can do it, too," Powers-Norrell said.

Charlene McGriff, chairwoman of the Lancaster County school board, said more women from Lancaster County need to run for local and state office.

"There's just not enough women at the table," said McGriff, the first black woman to be elected to the countywide school board. "We have to empower others."

Women need to network with and support each other, and women in leadership positions need to empower other women to run for office, McGriff said. She doesn't believe Lancaster County voters are against electing women.

"I think the women have to step up and take a chance on running," McGriff said. "We've got to have other women supporting women. They pull the families in and the husbands in. That's what it's going to take to get elected, regionally and statewide."

"Women just need to be encouraged," Barry said. "I loved every minute of my political career. I've always felt welcomed and accepted here."

That doesn't mean she'd run again. She's looking forward to one of the joys of being a woman as she gets closer to retirement.

"I am getting very old," Barry said. "I'm close to getting my state retirement. Then I'm going to be a grandma."

Contact Jenny Hartley at 283-1151 or jhartley@thelancasternews.com