By Harriet McLeod
Charleston, South Carolina (Reuters) - A bipartisan group in South Carolina, which has the lowest percentage of women in state political office, launched an effort on Monday to break what one activist called the "good old boys network."
While Republican Nikki Haley became the first woman governor of South Carolina in 2010, the state ranks last in the nation with only 9.4 percent women in the state legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. South Carolina is the only state in U.S. that has no women in its state Senate.
"We have a culture that has historically put women in a second position," said Barbara Rackes, spokeswoman for the Southeastern Institute of Women in Politics. "It's hard to break the good old boys network."
A non-profit, bipartisan group unveiled on Monday in the state capital of Columbia a Web-based training program aimed at encouraging more women to run for elected office.
"Women here also have a tendency to believe that politics is dirty and they don't want to get their hands dirty," Rackes said. "My response to that is who better to get their hands dirty than women?"
The institute's training program is part of the 2012 Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey, a national, non-partisan campaign launched 18 months ago to encourage women to run for state legislatures and Congress, said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics.
Many states are redrawing electoral lines for the 2012 after the 2010 Census, and it's a presidential election year, which tends to bring more voters to the polls and provides more opportunities for political newcomers. That combination has not happened since 1992, when a record-breaking 24 new women were elected to the U.S. House.
"We think that this year, the playing field is not level, but it's leveler," Walsh said.
The 2012 Project is operating in a dozen states -- South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, Washington, Arizona, Texas, Missouri and Nevada -- to provide ready-to-run training, Walsh said. About 300 women around the country have lined up to run for office so far, she said.
"We are trying to reach women that we normally have not talked to about politics -- engineers, realtors, small business owners, women in high-tech, scientists" she said. "Women don't ever feel like they're ready to do it," Walsh said. "The don't necessarily feel qualified to run. And they don't run until someone asks them."
About 1,745 women served in the 50 state legislatures at the beginning of the 2012 legislative session, the National Conference of State Legislatures said. Women make up 23.6 percent of all state lawmakers nationwide.
Joining South Carolina at the bottom, with ratios of 5 to 14 percent women, are Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and North Dakota, all states with Republican legislative majorities.
The top states are Vermont and Colorado, with about 40 percent female lawmakers. Vermont has Democratic majorities and Colorado's legislature is split between the parties. Other top states, with 30 percent or more representation by women, are Maryland, Illinois, Minnesota, Arizona, Washington and Hawaii. All of those have Democratic majorities except for Arizona and Minnesota.
Despite that, Walsh said it is not a Democratic or Republican problem. Both parties "could do better" in drafting female candidates, she said.
"In New Jersey, we're certainly more liberal or progressive than South Carolina, but we are a state that has very tight party control," Walsh said. "We used to be in the bottom 10 for women in office. We now rank fifteenth in the nation because we have been doing the Ready-to-Run program for more than a decade and we've created a farm team."