Two recent statistics are very troubling — we South Carolinians are last in the nation in electing women to our state legislature and second in nation in the rate of men killing women. What does this say about us as a state?
It is legitimate to first ask if these two statistics are in some way connected or are they just two random facts that are totally unrelated. In one sense surely voting decisions have nothing to do with domestic violence but on another level they do — they both say something about our culture.
We in South Carolina are justifiably proud of many parts of our culture — from football to writers to bar-b-que to music to auto racing to having good manners — no other region comes close. We really do have a special culture all our own and in this age of globalization and McDonald’s-like uniformity there is something very comforting and reassuring to know that we have an authentic culture that is uniquely ours.
But beyond these popular stereotypes of Southern culture there is a complexity and irony that is equally real. When it comes to our treatment of women, in politics or in the home, it is just one example of a “new South” that is continually struggling to emerge from the “old South.”
Our state’s native son W.J. Cash was born in Gaffney in 1910 and grew up to become a great newspaper man, and in 1941 he wrote the classic analysis of our region and culture, The Mind of the South. He describes “the South at its best: proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal…and the South’s vices: violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas.”
Cash brilliantly describes these two powerful currents of Southern culture and it seems that today women have been caught in the middle, at the place where these currents collide. Politics is rough and tumble — and our cultural traditions demand a mannered gentility from our Southern belles. We are intolerant and quick to violence — never more so than when our women-folk provoke us or attack our male pride.
And this collision of these two cross currents finds expression in all sorts of secondary issues that are hurting our state. Our manners make us a little uncomfortable with a public discussion of the whole subject of sex (straight or gay) and we are even still a little skittish in talking about birth control, one reason among many why our teenage pregnancy rates are among the nation’s highest. We believe that women have “a special place in the home” and as a result we have a discriminatory workplace without a state law requiring equal pay for equal work.
So how do we fix our problem? How do we bring women fully into the mainstream of our state’s political and economic life, and what do we do to ensure they will physically survive to get there?
There are no quick and easy answers. These dual problems are rooted in our culture and culture is the hardest thing to change. But culture can change. This week we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and he changed our culture — and in historic terms, the change came relatively quickly, so it can be done.
The biggest cultural and political changes are revolutionary changes…big and bold changes that have a long lasting and permanent impact and that is perhaps what we need here. John Adams said of our revolution against the British, that the real revolution “was first in the hearts and minds of our people” that then embolden them to demand change and fight for it.
I don’t know that there are likely to be mass marches in the streets or armed insurrection over electing women to the South Carolina legislature or fighting against domestic violence. But there are things that can be done — like our political parties aggressively reaching out to women and encouraging them to run for office and radical expansion of the state’s domestic violence prevention programs.
But ultimately it’s about culture — the culture of our state and our people — and that culture lives in all of our hearts and minds.
And that is where the change begins.
— Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the South Carolina New Democrats, an independent group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform to government and politics in South Carolina.