A conversation with seven trailblazing women who are filling leadership roles that until recently were always held by men
Women all over the country are speaking out, stepping up and making themselves known.
They marched on Washington, D.C.—and in cities across the country including Myrtle Beach—to protect their rights. They stood up against sexual assault and harassment with the #metoo movement, with those “silence breakers” gracing the coveted Time cover as Person of the Year in 2017. And feminism again became such a popular topic and was searched in the online dictionary so much that Merriam-Webster declared it word of the year.
And, closer to home, in less high-profile ways, driven women quietly forged new paths for females. These trailblazers shattered glass ceilings and took on top leadership roles along the Grand Strand that, until now, were always occupied by men.
In the past 18 months, Myrtle Beach named its first female police chief, longtime member of the force Amy Prock, and elected its first female mayor, Brenda Bethune, who also broke boundaries in business when she assumed the top job in the family’s beer distribution business, Better Brands.
Marilyn Fore moved up to president at Horry-Georgetown Technical College. And in August, Karen Riordan moved into the president’s office at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
They join the exclusive club of other trailblazing women along the Grand Strand in high-profile positions, including mayors—Marilyn Hatley in North Myrtle Beach and Barbara Jo Blain-Bellamy in Conway—and judges—Myrtle Beach Municipal Court Chief Judge Jennifer Wilson and Kaye Hearn of Conway, who made history in 2000 by becoming the first female chief judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals and in 2009 was only the second woman ever elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
They worked hard, overcame obstacles, had confidence in their abilities and didn’t let naysayers take them off the path, they said. As the saying goes, they believed they could do it, and they did. When they were younger, many of them never envisioned that they would end up in these top roles, though they still had high aspirations for successful professional careers.
“I thought about this two days ago when I sat amongst college and university presidents in Columbia,” said Fore, who was appointed president of Horry-Georgetown Technical College in April 2017. “I was so proud to have been given the opportunity in life to lead a quality college and to sit amongst great leaders in their own rights.
“What an honor it is for me to serve Horry-Georgetown Technical College as the first woman president. I am honored beyond expression.”
Job: Mayor of Myrtle Beach, elected November 2017, took office January 2018
Birthplace: Myrtle Beach
Education: Graduated from Myrtle Beach High School, degree in business
Family: Husband, Brown Bethune. Two daughters and one stepdaughter. Two grandsons.
What’s your wish for future generations of women?
My wish for all women, both now and future generations, is to always believe in and love yourself. If you don’t, then you can’t expect others to believe in or love you. And when you do, your entire life will change.
These trailblazers put in the hard work, persevered and have passion. But nearly every one said having the confidence and believing in yourself was also key—regardless of critics and others who tried to stand in the way.
“My advice for women would be to believe in yourself even if others do not believe in your abilities. That confidence will show in all you do,” said Bethune, a Myrtle Beach native who was elected mayor of her hometown in November and took office in January. “Don’t waste your time trying to change negative people’s perception of you. There will always be those who don’t like your decisions or who want to cause problems. When you focus on the minority of those who are inherently negative, you lose focus on the big picture. Keep your time, attention and heart focused on what really matters.”
Hard work, perseverance and maintaining relationships helped these trailblazers make it to the top, they said.
“Perseverance, communication and focus,” said Prock, who was named police chief in July 2017. “Always have heart in what you do, love what you do, be open that not everything will always go your way and listen to those you work with and work for.”
They say they treat their co-workers—the people they worked for, and those who work for them—with the same respect they expect from others.
“Everything we do in life centers around building relationships,” Bethune said. “To me, that is more important than anything.”
Job: President of Horry-Georgetown Technical College, appointed April 1, 2017
Birthplace: Toledo, Ohio
Education: Bachelor’s in Social Sciences from Fairmont State College in West Virginia; two M.A.s from University of South Carolina in Education and in Economics; EdD from the University of South Carolina in Curriculum and Instruction; Honorary Doctorate from Coastal Carolina University
Family: Husband, Dr. Fred Fore. Two stepdaughters, Lee Moyd and Lori Fore. Four step-grandsons: Kelly, Ben, Hunter, Grayson.
What’s your wish for future generations of women?
My wish for future generations of women is the same for men: Acknowledge the value of life. Recognize the value in each and everyone you meet. Work hard for something you love.
The path to these top roles wasn’t always a smooth one. Like most leaders, these trailblazers worked hard and have a passion for what they do. But many of them also had to prove themselves in male-dominated industries or overcome discrimination.
Bethune remembers working at Better Brands, determined to learn all she could from every person she worked with.
“I grew up in a male-dominated industry and a family-owned business,” she said. “Not only did I have to prove my abilities as a female, but I felt that I also had to work harder than everyone to prove that I did not expect special treatment.”
Growing up in the segregated South was the biggest hurdle for Jennifer Wilson, who took office in 2000 as the first full-time chief judge for the Myrtle Beach Municipal Court.
She was in 10th grade in 1968 when public schools integrated and remembers how it felt sitting in separate waiting rooms at doctors’ offices or upstairs in movie theaters because she wasn’t allowed to sit with white children, she said.
“Notwithstanding my circumstances, I knew that if I worked hard, if I was just given an opportunity to get an education, that I could excel in whatever my goal was,” she said. “My persistence, my determination, encouragement from my family and teachers, propelled me to reach for the sky.”
Job: Mayor of North Myrtle Beach, elected in 2001
Birthplace: Albemarle, North Carolina
Education: Beaux’s Art College of Cosmetology; attended University of South Carolina
Family: Husband, David Hatley. One son, Chad Hatley, and future daughter-in-law, Jackie Vereen. Granddaughter Amelia.
What advice do you give to women in the workforce?
Women must have confidence in their ability. Confidence ensures success in the business and political world. I encourage women to work on their communication skills and listening skills. These are the two major skills which will enable you to build relationships and become a problem solver. Being successful in the workforce is about being of service to others. Strive to be the person who opens the door to help the people behind you.
Those hurdles also helped inspire a young Jennifer, who knew when she was just 6 or 7 years old that she wanted to become a lawyer.
“Feeling helpless, I saw the law as providing me with an opportunity to change the system that forbade me from living a life of freedom and dignity,” she said. “Becoming a lawyer empowered me to do just that.”
Fore also had to get the right mindset for success and not stop when she hit closed doors.
“My biggest hurdle was myself,” she said. “I had to prove that I could figure out how to better myself, how to open doors that had been closed to me and, lastly, to always recognize myself as an equal to others.”
Some still struggle—like many in top roles, regardless of gender—to juggle all their responsibilities in the office and in their personal lives to have an appropriate work-life balance.
“As a working professional and a wife and mom and a volunteer, I tend to try to do it all, all the time,” Riordan said. “It’s exhausting and if you’re not careful, you have no time for yourself. Instead, I focus on my priorities and give work 1,000 percent when necessary but also don’t feel guilty when I want to focus on my family for vacation or a relaxing weekend.”
Prock, who has worked at the Myrtle Beach Police Department since 1996 and is married with four kids, says she has a supportive husband at home and team at work to help her maintain the work-home balance, but it still takes effort.
“Overcoming this challenge takes consistent planning and communicating with both of your teams and keeping engaged,” she said.
Job: Elected to family court bench in 1986, to the South Carolina Court of Appeals in 1995, as chief judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals in 1999 and to the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2009
Birthplace: Delaware, Ohio
Education: Public schools of Warren, Pennsylvania; B.A. from Bethany College (magna cum laude); J.D. from University of South Carolina School of Law (cum laude); L.L.M. from University of Virginia
Family: Husband, George M. Hearn; daughter, Kathleen Hearn.
What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome and how did you do it? I had to run three times to win a seat on the South Carolina Supreme Court. The process takes a physical and emotional toll on candidates, but I just kept trying until I succeeded.
While they celebrate their successes, these trailblazers know more work still needs to be done for women’s equality. They envision a workplace environment where women face no more obstacles to reach top levels than any other worker, a place where they are paid the same salary as their male counterparts.
And one day, they hope, it won’t take a movement for unwanted sexual advances to be dealt with appropriately.
“My wish for my daughter and future generations is that women feel free to choose whatever path makes them happy,” Riordan said. “If they do choose to embark on a career, they will be respected in the workplace and we won’t need a #metoo movement in the future. And with respect comes equal pay for equal work.”
Job: Myrtle Beach Police Chief, promoted July 2017
Birthplace: Ft. Meade, Maryland
Education: Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice from Radford University; Masters in Psychology from Francis Marion University
Family: Married, four children, one dog.
Where do you get your inspiration? My inspiration in life comes from God, my husband, family, friends and the MBPD Team. You can’t do life alone. As a local law enforcement officer, being able to work with your team and your community to make changes to make a difference for the better is what keeps me motivated and inspired every day.
Hearn said that when she was in college 40 years ago, white women earned 59 cents for $1 earned by a white man. It’s still not even. White women earn 79 cents for every $1 earned by a white man for the same work, Hearn said, citing a recent report by the National Women’s Law Center and adding that the gap is even wider for African-American, Hispanic and Native-American women.
“I am dismayed that in my lifetime, this wage disparity has not disappeared,” Hearn said.
Job: President and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, started August 2018
Birthplace: Battle Creek, Michigan, but grew up in Massachusetts
Education: Boston College
Family: Husband, Mike. Daughter, Grace. Two dogs and three cats.
What has been the key to your success? Preparation and perseverance. Some may call it stubbornness. I never give up and am very goal oriented.
These trailblazers achieved what some never thought would happen. And they’re hopeful the next generation of confident women will continue to push to new levels. They encourage future generations to believe in themselves, work hard and treat people well.
“I encourage all young women to be what you want to be, set your goals and reach for the stars,” Hatley said. “Your success has everything to do with attitude and action. And, always work to accomplish your next dream.”
Job: Chief judge of Myrtle Beach Municipal Court, appointed in December 1999 and took office January 2000
Birthplace: Charleston, grew up in Walterboro
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Political Science (cum laude) from Spelman College in 1977; juris doctor from Rutgers University School of Law in 1980
Family: Divorced, two children: Hannah, 21, and Lucken, 20. One grandchild, Angellina Nicole, 18 months.
What’s your wish for future generations of women? My wish for future generations of women is that they never take for granted their perceived equality in this country. That they continue to fight for equality in the workplace, in government, in education and in every walk of life. More importantly, that women own their power! I believe we are the most powerful species created on this earth!
Photos by Ryan Smith Gauthier and courtesy of the City of Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Coastal Carolina University