The state five “sister senators” are all smiles as Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, and Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, point to a friend in the crowd. (Photos by Win Hammond/Carolina News and Reporter)

Sen. Katrina Shealy was elected to the state Senate 11 years ago. She was then the only woman.

“There were 45 men – then me,” Shealy recently told a group of women in Columbia. “I wasn’t nearly as scared of them as they were of me, because I don’t think they knew what to do with me. I still don’t think they know what they’re doing. But that’s another story.”

The Lexington Republican is the “mama” of the state’s five “sister senators.” The women have earned international coverage for temporarily blocking the South Carolina legislature’s 6-week abortion ban.

The five senators are the only women in the Senate. Along with the 20 women representatives in the House, they make up 14.7% of state legislators. That’s despite more than half the state’s population being women.

The women say that has to change.

“We are now 49 in the nation (in the number of) of women elected officials,” said sister Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston. “We’re last only to West Virginia. They fall behind us. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?”

Leaders from across the state met in Columbia on Tuesday for the S.C. Women in Leadership dinner to honor the sister senators with a Leadership Legacy Award.

S.C. Ports President and CEO Barbara Melvin received the nonprofit’s Leading Woman Award. And freshman state Rep. Heather Bauer, D-Richland, was given its Rising Star Award.

Melvin is the first woman to lead a Top 10 U.S. container port. She became the agency’s CEO in July 2022 after more than 20 years working there.

She earned notoriety for serving as the lead staff person on the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project, which made Charleston the deepest harbor on the East Coast, at 52 feet.

Melvin said her success would have been impossible had she not taken risks in face of opposition. One obstruction to her path in politics and business was simply being a woman, she said.

“I would venture to guess that there are women here in this room interested in obtaining a leadership position (and) that they may be doubting their readiness or their capabilities,” Melvin said. “So let me be the one to tell you, ‘Do it anyway.’”

Bauer faced similar opposition, not just in her political career but her entire life, she said.

She was a first-generation college student, and her single mother drove a bus to support her and four younger brothers.

Bauer ran three times with “minimal financial resources,” and won in 2022 against 10-year Republican incumbent Kirkman Finlay. In her first session, she worked across the aisle to help secure $1.6 million for new projects in Columbia.

Bauer also fought against the 6-week abortion ban in the House.

The sister senators separately this month were named winners of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage prize, which honors humanistic political achievements and human rights advocacy.

Past recipients include former President Barack Obama and lawmakers Nancy Pelosi and the late John Lewis.

“Me and my four sister senators will stand together,” Shealy said of the prize.

Attendees, including Rep. Heather Bauer, D-Richland, filter into the dining room as they take pictures of a “Sister Senators” banner.

S.C. Ports president and CEO Barbara Melvin grins toward the stage. She said she felt like an opening act to a Taylor Swift concert with the “Sister Senators.”

Sen. Mia McLeod, I-Richland, smiles at guests as she recounts one of her constituents telling her she “blessed” them with her sickle cell advocacy.

Around 250 people attended the Women In Leadership on Sept. 26. Sponsors included the Columbia mayor’s office, S.C. Planned Parenthood and the University of South Carolina’s office of the president.