Dozens of women gathered in the Penland Building on the campus of USC Aiken on Monday night for the area's first Circle of Women in Leadership meeting.

Women in Leadership is a multi-partisan organization that seeks to promote women in areas of local community leadership.

Barbara Rackes, the group's president, said there are nine "circles" that have been established across the state of South Carolina in areas such as Greenville, Charleston and Aiken. The circles were created at the regional level because each region's needs and political landscape vary from the next.

"We did this because we saw a need," Rackes said. "We organized this group as a 501c(3) (nonprofit) in 2015."

However, Rackes and her coworkers held off launching Women in Leadership until April, in part due to concerns that strong feelings over the 2016 election would make it difficult to facilitate a multi-partisan, collaborative political effort to increase women's roles in local leadership.

"We're very young, but we're very motivated," Rackes said. 

Rackes said the group has three main "pillars" they seek to accomplish.

The first is to advocate for a public redistricting process, which Rackes referred to as "fair voting." Women in Leadership has expressed concerns with the current districts for voters being decided behind closed doors at the state level, without the process being open to public viewing or media scrutiny. Rackes said the group's concern is that districts are drawn to enable current representatives to "choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives."

"We don't want people deciding behind closed doors whose cul-de-sac they want in their district," Rackes said. 

The second pillar addresses filling the pipeline with representatives who choose to run based on their capability, regardless of their gender.

"Women have been telling me for years that they don't have the right clothes, the right hair, the right qualifications," Rackes said. She said Women in Leadership wants to change the mindset of women who think they can only run for office if they are "overqualified."

To accomplish this, Rackes said Women in Leadership is working with S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster to seek female candidates who would be qualified to fill certain positions in order to make the selection pool more diverse.

The third pillar is to reduce polarization. Rackes said this is one of the main issues seen in politics today, and that Women in Leadership wants to see women succeed regardless of what party they do or don't support.

Local female representatives from Aiken County were present at the event, including Aiken City Councilwomen Lessie Price, Gail Diggs, and Andrea Gregory. Aiken County Councilwoman Camille Furgiuele and USC Aiken Chancellor Sandra Jordan were also present at the event.

Each of them spoke briefly, sharing their experiences of being pioneering women in some of their positions and watching the political landscape change from a time when women rarely left the home to seeing certain career fields become dominated by women.

Women in Leadership plans to hold a circle meeting in Aiken each year. For more info about the organization, visit scwomenlead.net.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.