Local Women Politicians Share Their Perspectives as Part of Constitution Week

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AIKEN, SC (09/24/2018) During Constitution Week, the University of South Carolina Aiken presented "Women Leading in Our Community," a panel discussion between elected or campaigning women and students, faculty, staff, and guests.

"One thing I don't take for granted is the Constitution," said panelist Camille Furgiuele who serves on county council. "I tell people all the time, 'please don't ever take for granted the fact that you are born, educated and live in the United States.'

"I don't take it for granted. I cherish it, and I'm and honored to be a public servant in Aiken County."

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is observed annually on Sept. 17, the day in 1787 when the framers of the U.S. Constitution signed the historic document.

"Each educational institution that receives federal funds for a fiscal year is required to hold an educational program about the U.S. Constitution for its students," according to the education department's website.

For one local leader who participated in USC Aiken's event, Constitution Day provides an important reminder.

"Our history can be forgotten so quickly, and observance of the Constitution Day reminds us of our history," said Aiken City Councilwoman Lessie Price who won her first election by only 49 votes.

""The Constitution begins with a preamble 'We the People,' which recognizes laws and principles that governs the United States of America and guaranteed freedom and equality for all. The 226-year-old document serves as foundation and framework to ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

USC Aiken expanded the annual Constitution-based observance to include a week full of related activities.

While the panel touched on the Constitution and its impact, the discussion also focused on women in politics.

"We wanted to honor the anniversary of the ratification of our Constitution and call attention to how it is a living document that has changed with time. It has extended the promise of democracy to include additional groups of citizens over its history, women being one of the largest of these," said Dr. Sarah Young of the USC Aiken Political Science Department.

She explained that in this election cycle there is a record-breaking number of women, and women of color in particular, running as candidates for public office. According to research from the American Center for Women in Politics in South Carolina, 41 women are currently running for state legislative seats -- up from 30 in 2016. In neighboring Georgia, 121 are running, which is an increase from 75 two years ago.

ACWP research also shows that 60 percent more women have declared intent to run for Congress this year than in 2016.

"We saw big increases in 1992 in women running and winning office, but this could be a year where we see even larger gains for women, after a decade of leveling off," Young said.

The panel included: USC Aiken Alumnus the Honorable Lessie Price, Aiken City councilwoman for District 2; the Honorable Gail Diggs, councilwoman for Aiken City Council District 1 who also serves on the university's Inclusion Advisory Council; the Honorable Camille Furgiuele, councilwoman for Aiken County Council District 2; and Dr. Elise Bickford Fox, an Aiken native and first-time political candidate who is running for South Carolina State House District 81.

"Local and state office holding is what builds the path to higher national office. Local leaders have arguably the most critical role in setting strong examples for young women to emulate," said Young, who organized the event.

Before getting into their personal experiences, Young asked the panelists how the Constitution affected their ability to enter and lead in politics and whether they feel the Constitution adequately protects the ability of women to win elections and enjoy full participation in our political system and society.

"I like that the Constitution is a living document and we can still make changes and we have the opportunity to right things that are wrong," Fox said.

Among the historical changes was the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote.

"Less than 100 years ago, women did not have the right to vote," Fox added. "Sadly, many still don't vote.

"Your vote is your voice."

In addition to urging the attendees to participate in the election cycles, the panelists shared their personal experiences, starting with what inspired them to go into politics.

"I knew people in my community were complaining and complaining about things that weren't getting done," Price, the first woman to run for office in Aiken, said.

"If you want change, run."

The panelists also shared their advice for the next generation of leaders who attended. They had a special message for women, encouraging them to step up and lead - and for the next generation of men who will serve alongside these women.

"If you are concerned about the state of our country, get educated, register to vote, and share your passion with your peers," Diggs said.

"The recent emergence of women candidates and their success is inspiring. Young men and women are showing how they are working together in many political arenas and getting things done. This is proof that we are better and stronger together.

"Never let the cynicism keep you from being a voice and a force for change. You are our future."

As the university's first Constitution Week event, the organizer felt it important to hear from local leaders who are charged with ensuring the document, along with local laws and regulations, guide their decisions, impact, and their political legacies.

"We were thrilled to have a diverse array of women share their experiences in running for, winning, and leading in elected offices here in our own community," Young said.