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#SCStateHouse: Image Is Everything?

Evolving dynamics of power, sex, fashion intersect in Palmetto politics …

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This news site has never been prudish.  If anything, we’ve pushed the envelope in the other direction over the course of our evolution as a media outlet.

Our view is simple: No matter the arena, people should present themselves how they want.

After all, it’s their image …

Whether we’re talking about attitude or attire, we think people should act according to their personalities and dress according to their tastes … not worrying what others think (and not needlessly criticizing those whose tastes differ from their own).

In politics, however, perceptions are particularly attuned … and with more women occupying positions of power in our home state of South Carolina (and around the nation), the dynamics associated with image presentation are changing rapidly.  Also, everything is happening on a highly visible stage, so the expectation that people will “live and let live” when it comes to any detail – no matter how personal – is probably unrealistic.

Everything gets noticed … and everything has the potential to be politically weaponized.

Let’s be honest: The S.C. State House is full of perpetually scheming, upwardly mobile egomaniacs – many of whom have itching inferiority complexes and little in the way of impulse control.  Or intellectual curiosity.

Do we really expect such lowest common denominators to tame their tongues or control their urges?  Or fail to take full advantage of any opportunity to score points against their political rivals? 

The reality is there’s an increasingly edgy intersection of power and sexuality in state politics … manifested on multiple fronts (including increasingly prevalent girl-against-girl attacks).

Many female politicians in South Carolina have embraced this evolving dynamic … translating it into positive public opinion for themselves and their issues.

(Click to view)

(Via: @USUN)

For example, South Carolina’s first female governor Nikki Haley (above) has repeatedly stated that she doesn’t “wear high heels as a fashion statement.”  It’s a shopworn remark, one Haley has trotted out repeatedly at the state and national level, but it’s been very effective – simultaneously drawing attention to Haley’s fashion choices as well as her presumption that she is above such surface considerations.

Other women have incorporated ideology into their fashion choices – donning particular colors en masse on specified occasions to show their support for particular issues (National Wear Red Day comes to mind as an example).

Of course there’s a flip side to this coin.  In a state government dominated for years by older, white males, this sudden influx of female politicians – many of whom have been endowed by their creator with certain physical attributes deemed desirable by all sexes – has caused many head-on collisions.

It’s a culture change, and the shifting tectonic plates have occasionally produced profound shock waves.

In 2001, a controversial “Men’s Caucus” memo – rumored to have been authored by former state representative Jimmy Merrill – made such waves at the State House.  According to this overtly sexist document, female House pages were instructed to wear skirts “no longer than four inches above the knee” and told they would “receive additional merit pay for economizing and saving valuable materials used in blouse construction.”

The memo was intended in jest … but it certainly wasn’t perceived that way.

“The terms ‘babe,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sugar’ and ‘little missy’ should be accepted as compliments and terms of endearment,” the memo continued, adding that “undergarments are – need it be said – optional.”

Yeah …

Not surprisingly, there have been several incidents of sexual harassment at the S.C. State House in recent years – although to his credit S.C. speaker of the House Jay Lucas has aggressively enforced a zero tolerance policy on this issue, ushering in a welcome culture change for female lawmakers (as well as State House staffers, pages, lobbyists and other women who work the corridors of power in Columbia, S.C.).

In fact in years past, such incidents might have never seen the light of day …

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

Of course it’s not just leering men that women in positions of influence must be aware of …

Two weeks ago, third-term state representative Beth Bernstein was on the floor of the S.C. House of Representatives preparing to address her colleagues when she was reportedly stopped by one of her Democratic colleagues, state representative Patsy Knight.

According to at least a half-dozen lawmakers who overheard the exchange, Knight told Bernstein she needed to “go home and change” because the dress she (Bernstein) was wearing was “inappropriate for the State House.”

Bernstein ignored the remark, we’re told, at which point Knight allegedly informed her that “dressing like that gets women raped.”

This news site made repeated attempts to contact Knight regarding the comments, but received no response.

“She denied the second part later but a lot of people heard her,” one House member told us.

While several of her colleagues were appalled at the alleged comments, Bernstein told us she wasn’t going to get into the details of conversations that didn’t relate to the business of the S.C. General Assembly.

“I don’t think twice about personal comments,” Bernstein told us. “I’m there to represent my constituents and work for them not to get caught up in trivial gossip.”

In fact, Bernstein (below) declined to identify Knight as the source of the spiteful remarks.

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

Asked for her views on what she wears to the State House, Bernstein told us “I’m a professional woman and business owner, and my wardrobe is always appropriate and respectful of the forum where I am.”

She further stressed that her clothing selections should not be a topic of interest as they are irrelevant to her job as state representative.

Bernstein’s colleague, state representative Mandy Powers Norrell, agreed.

“While there are certainly women in the House who look attractive in their business attire, everyone I’ve seen is always appropriately dressed,” Norrell told us.  “If someone is distracted by another person’s clothes, then the person distracted should probably do some personal work on self control.”

“The mere fact that it’s a topic of discussion is a problem in and of itself,” Norrell told us.  “We don’t see any articles about whether a man is inviting unwanted attention by the way he dresses.”

That’s true, although one female lawmaker who declined to be identified for this story told us “the problem isn’t what these women are wearing – the problem is they are beautiful and people who aren’t beautiful get jealous.”

Norrell, for example, found her own appearance the focus of considerable attention after she delivered the response to Haley’s State of the State address in 2016.  As part of his envelope-pushing persona, our news site’s founding editor Will Folks – who happens to be represented by Norrell in his ongoing first amendment case – tweeted that the Lancaster, S.C. lawyer-legislator was “rocking some serious sex hair.”

Thankfully for him, she was not offended by the tweet … but it certainly could have been taken the wrong way.

Again, though, it’s not the commentary coming from males which is generating most of the heat under the State House dome when it comes to what women wear in the halls of influence.

“There are more young and young(ish) women than ever in politics,” another female lawmaker told us. “And the criticisms (of them) are coming primarily from the older women.”

Take newly elected state representative Nancy Mace (below) – one of the next generation of female elected representatives in Columbia, S.C.  A Lowcountry native and the first woman to graduate from The Citadel (the state’s government-run military college) Mace is used to overcoming hazing.

(Click to view)

(Via: Sam Holland/ S.C. House of Representatives)

According to several of her female colleagues, she’s getting plenty of it from a handful of her “Republican” colleagues in the S.C. House.

“She is so smart and so sweet and they are treating her terribly because they’re jealous that she’s beautiful,” one of Mace’s female colleagues told us.  “Women can be each other’s worst enemies.”

Mace told us the vast majority of her fellow female members have been nothing but kind to her, and that she doesn’t dwell on the handful who haven’t.

She did say that comments like those allegedly directed at Bernstein have no place in the political arena.

“This is actually one of the issues where I think women should have each other’s backs,” Mace told us. “I think everyone at the State House already knows I don’t belong to the ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ crowd – nor will I ever because my primary loyalty is to my constituents and to my convictions, not my gender.  But on a personal level all women in elected office should support one another – especially when they are coming under attack for something that has absolutely no bearing on their job.”

We agree …

As women continue to play a more prominent role in Palmetto politics, we suspect the fault lines of power and sexuality will continue to shift.  And with openly gay lawmakers now serving in Columbia, the lines will probably be blurred further – which isn’t a bad thing as far as we’re concerned.

Our view on all this?  As stated at the outset of this piece, everyone’s image is their own – and they should cultivate it as they see fit.  Moreover, in the grand scheme of things how people look or what they wear doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter nearly as much as how they vote.

But to pretend image doesn’t matter at all is to ignore the reality of the world in which we live …

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Banner: Travis Bell Photography


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