COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) – As 7 News continues to recognize Black History Month, we turn our attention to a group of women who are collectively making history in the Palmetto State.
Nine female lawmakers are changing the face of politics in South Carolina.
Outside of the Capital Building in Columbia stands a monument dedicated to African-American history.
Highlighting the civil war, slave trade, the civil rights era and voting rights. On this day we are pausing to take a closer look at nine women who are making history of their own.
As 2020 begins, the vision is clear for the women who serve together in the South Carolina House of Representatives, they are breaking barriers and stereotypes.
“I think we’ve taken the house by storm, we’re all seasoned, we’re all witty, we have a lot of intelligence and a lot of savvy, I think that that’s something that men have been quiet taken aback by,” Democrat, District 31, Spartanburg, Representative Rosalyn Henderson-Myers said.
These nine elected officials are affectionately called the “Divine Nine.” The name given during a ceremony at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Taylors, where they were honored for their service.
“Divine Nine reminds me of a time when there were no African-American women or men in the South Carolina house and the fact that we are here today gives us hope of what can be done to move this state forward,” Democratic District 25, Greenville County, Representative Leola Robinson-Simpson said.
They represent nearly every corner of the state from Chesterfield to McCormick to Charleston and Greenville and many municipalities in between. For some, getting into office wasn’t easy.
“I challenged a 12 year incumbent here in the state, and it wasn’t an easy election at the end. When the dust settled, there were 52 votes separating us, but I am here and this is my 12th year,”
Democrat District 23, Greenville County, Representative Chandra Dillard said.
For others the desire to serve out weighed conventional thinking.
“My father asked me, ‘Do you know what it pays?’ I said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘Do you know what you do?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Do you know its a thankless job?’ I said, ‘No, but I’m going to do it anyway,” Democratic District 12, Greenwood and McCormick counties, Representative Anne Parks said.
No matter the journey or the cost, all understand the gravity of their positions.
“I don’t think my community knew what they were missing as it relates to what happens here in the state house and what can come to the community. I’m just over joyed that I have the opportunity to go back to them and show them and tell them,” Democrat District 41, Chester, Fairfield and Richland counties, Representative Annie McDaniel said.
The women said they have a bond. They support each other and offer guidance and share wisdom.
“We have our own individual look, our own individual style, but when it comes to doing good for the people of the state, we’re all on one page,” Democrat District 70, Richland and Sumter counties, Representative Wendy Brawley said.
“I feel that I have now eight sisters who have my back and I don’t care what happens, we will be there for each other,” Democrat District 54, Chesterfield, Darlington and Marlboro counties, Representative Patricia Henegan.
That unwavering support extends from the newly elected.
“My most challenging part about serving is the fact that I am a single mother of five. So, juggling my work life, my children and my role here at the state house is definitely very challenging,” Democrat District 117, Berkeley and Charleston counties, Representative Krystle Matthews said.
Who has served the longest?
Representative Gilda-Cobb-Hunter, initially elected nearly 30 years ago, serves the Orangeburg community. Out of 124 members in the House, she’s ranked number one, meaning she’s the longest serving member
“If you are in a position to be in these seats then you need to give voice and be a voice for those who have no voice,” Democrat District 66, Orangeburg County, Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter said.
It’s a message these lawmakers take to heart by sponsoring and supporting bills that speak to issues effecting their communities.
“It’s pay equity. I’ve sponsored the bill. It has not moved out of this chamber and that’s disappointing because equal pay for equal work is just fundamental fairness,” Brawley said.
“The one that I’m most proud of is my lactation support bill, which gives break time to mothers to be able to express and pump their milk in the work place,” Henderson-Myers said.
That bill has bipartisan support, and is now making its way through the senate.
Representative Leola Robinson-Simpson is following and hoping for the passage of the school to jail pipeline bill, which would take a closer look at juvenile justice laws in the state and propose changes to the system to help troubled youth.
This group has no regrets but only messages of encouragement for the younger versions of themselves.
“I would tell my younger self, ‘Never underestimate yourself,'” Brawley said.
“Love for Christ does pay off,” McDaniel said.
“It’s important to have relationships with people,” Henderson-Myers said.
“I would say, ‘Keep striving. Keep striving,'” Robinson -Simpson said.
“I think I would say to my 15 or 16-year-old self, ‘Stay focused. This is going to get better. This too shall pass,'” Cobb-Hunter said.
“Be willing to take a risk,” Dillard said.
The conversation heavy with wisdom, concluded with a call for more to join the ranks.
“We need women. Particularly women of color running at local levels. We need to build a bench. We need city council, county council, school board, all elected positions. Women of color African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian Pacific, you need to look at us and see yourself,” Cobb-Hunter said.
This is the first time in the state’s history that nine African American women have served at the same time in the House of Representatives. They are all looking to make a difference and inspire change.