Sens. Sandy Senn, Katrina Shealy and Penry Gustafson, left to right, discussed reproductive rights this spring, urging the lawmakers to “grow a spine.” (Associated Press photo)

Five South Carolina women senators have been awarded the 2023 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

Sens. Mia McLeod, Katrina Shealy, Margie Matthews, Sandy Senn and Penry Gustafson joined forces in the spring against a proposed near-total state abortion bill. 

After a multi-day filibuster, the women were successful. 

“We never saw it coming,” Senn, R-Charleston, said of the award. “We didn’t do it for accolades. We did what we did because we had to.”

The women represent places across the state: Charleston, Kershaw, Colleton, Camden and Lexington.

And they come from different parties. Three are Republicans, one is a Democrat and one, an independent. 

Each senator is continuing the fight for reproductive rights, even as the Senate later passed a 6-week abortion ban that eventually was upheld by the state Supreme Court.

The JFK Library noted the women acted in a bipartisan fashion.

“Each of the five lawmakers took turns describing the complexities of pregnancy and the reproductive system, the dangers of lack of access to contraception, and inadequate privacy laws,” it said on its website.

The senators were honored for protecting individual rights, even though it’s expected to lead to political backlash for some.

“We really felt the weight of all women on our shoulders,” Senn said. 

The award was announced on The Today Show on Sept. 19 by the U.S. ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, who is the late president’s daughter, and her son Jack Schlossberg.

“They have very different views on the issue of abortion,” Schlossberg told The Today Show. “Some are pro-choice, and others are pro-life. But they came together and they stuck together, and it wasn’t easy.”

Deborah Billings is an adjunct associate professor for Health Promotion, Education & Behavior at the University of South Carolina.

“I think it’s really important that we are publicly acknowledging people who are taking a clear stance on how wrong these bans are and how damaging they are,” Billings said of the award. 

Billings is part of a coalition that has been active in educating its members about what happens when there’s an abortion ban.

The senators, nicknamed the Sister Senators, have been talked about for months in national publications.

The Profile in Courage Award is the same award that Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, for example, have won in years past.

The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation launched the award in 1989. It honors people who display acts of political bravery without fear of backlash.

The name of the award comes from John Kennedy’s book entitled “Profiles of Courage,” a collection of essays published in 1955 to show the actions of heroic figures at the time.

Now, the Sister Senators will go down in history as courageous political figures, too.

The group has many goals moving forward. For one, it hopes to inspire more women to run for office.

“Women tend to fare well when they run,” Senn said. “They just rarely gather the courage to put their names on the ballot. A lot of that is because they know it takes money to run a campaign. But we can all help them learn the ropes on fundraising.”


S.C. Sens. Sandy Senn, Katrina Shealy, Penry Gustafson, Mia McLeod and Margie Matthews – the sister senators (Associated Press photo)

A supporter of the senators hung a flag outside their house representing the unity of the women. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Sandy Senn)