The 1970s

A New Day in Politics

Within a few years, other women were coming to the state legislature after working with spouses who died in office. In 1970, Orchid I. Jordan, a Kansas City Democrat, won election after her husband, powerful black leader Rep. Leon Jordan, was murdered. As she said then, "I want to do everything I can to make Leon's dream of dignity, equality, justice and freedom a reality." During her 16 years in office, Orchid Jordan regularly sponsored legislation for transit-system taxes; in 1984, she won 81 percent of the vote in her district.

A special 1971 election gave Judith G. O'Connor, a Democrat from North St. Louis County, the seat left vacant when her husband was killed in an auto accident on his way to the House. She won re-election in her own right the following year.

With the 1972 election, a new era dawned in national politics. Shirley Chisholm ran for president; at the Democratic National Convention, Frances "Sissy" Farenthold was nominated vice-presidential running mate for George McGovern. U.S. Congresswoman Martha Griffiths (D-Michigan), a native of Pierce City who earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1934 from the University of Missouri, had managed to pry the Equal Rights Amendment out of the House Judiciary Committee, where it had long been stalled. After a Herculean effort by women's organizations, the U.S. Senate passed the ERA by a vote of 84 to 8. Despite this progress, the Center for the American Woman and Politics estimated that women still held only 5 percent of state legislative seats nationwide.

Missouri women sensed the change in political climate. The pool of 26 candidates for statewide office in 1970 grew to 44 women running in 1972. After the November election, seven female incumbents and three newcomers were seated in the House--ten women alongside 153 men. Among those elected were two Republicans: Irene Treppler from the 106th district, and Mildred Huffman, a St. Louis Republican from the 91st district, who had earlier been the first woman elected St. Louis County clerk.

Another newly elected representative was Sue Shear, a Clayton Democrat who had been involved in a host of community organizations including the League of Women Voters and the Council of Jewish Women. In 1971, the National Women's Political Caucus (WPC) had formed in Washington, D.C., to help women take their place in American political life. On February 12, 1972, the Missouri WPC held its first statewide meeting, planned by Doris Quinn of Kansas City and Betty Cook Rottmann of Columbia. The following November, Sue Shear became the first woman recruited and supported by the WPC to win a House seat.

The 1972 election marked another first for women when Rep. Mary Gant, then a three-term representative, was elected by an overwhelming margin to serve as Missouri's first female state senator. Newspaper articles heralded her arrival in the 34-member Senate with headlines that read: "Move Over, Gentlemen; Mrs. Gant has arrived." During her campaign, she supported laws that mandated equal pay for equal work, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and liberalized abortion laws.

While some women made headlines, others took new places with little fanfare. After 20 years of state government service, Vinita Ramsey was named secretary to the state Senate. For a decade, until her death in 1982, she was in charge of a small staff that kept the daily Journal of the Senate and performed other administrative functions.

This new band of legislators meant a new wave of legislation sponsored by women. In 1973, working together with Rep. Wayne Goode (D-Normandy), Sue Shear recruited women law students from Washington University to research discriminatory language and practices in Missouri statutes. From this research, supported by the League of Women Voters, came her initial package of 35 bills, the first skirmish in her continuing campaign to make Missouri laws 'sex-neutral."

The first round in another battle also took place in 1973: the fight over state ratification of the ERA. Like their male colleagues, women legislators began lining up on both sides of the question: Mary Gant led the opposition, while Sue Shear was House sponsor of the amendment. This time, the House defeated the ERA by a vote of 70 to 81.

In less visible legislation, Winnie Weber, a Democratic representative from House Springs, successfully sponsored a bill requiring a course in the psychology and education of the exceptional child for a teaching certificate. Margaret Miller, a Republican state representative from the 145th district, passed a measure abolishing the office of county superintendent of schools in counties of a certain size.

A distinguished attorney in Republican politics was also named to the bench in 1973. Hazel Palmer of Sedalia, who had been president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs from 1956 to 1958 and who had also been the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1958, was appointed to fill a vacancy as Pettis County magistrate judge. The following year she was elected to the post in her own right, then re-elected in 1978, and raised to associate circuit judge in 1979. She retired in 1982 at age 79.

In 1974, 36 women ran for the top five state-wide executive positions nationwide, while 1,100 women campaigned to become state legislators. Following the national trend, Missouri had a record number of candidates--54 in all--running for statewide posts.

After serving two terms as state representative, Winnie Weber was on the campaign trail to become the second female state senator. Women, she had said in a 1973 speech, "have the brains and the ability that government needs." Her own platform included support for capital punishment, along with opposition to abortion and the ERA. In the primary, she was defeated by only 56 votes.

The Missouri Women's Political Caucus was also hard at work in this election to promote candidates who favored passage of the ERA. In 1974, the group helped elect three new women as state representatives--Dotty Doll, Della Hadley and Doris Quinn, all Democrats from Kansas City--who were strong ERA supporters.

Those new votes were essential in 1975 when the second round of the ERA battle took place, with pro-ERA forces feverishly trying to solidify a block of support in the face of strong opposition. Finally, the House approved the ERA by the minimum number of votes necessary for its passage, an 82-to-75 vote majority. But in the Senate, the amendment failed on a vote of 14-to-20.

In 1976, a Missouri woman became the first named to an ambassador's post when Rosemary L. Ginn, a lawyer from Columbia, was appointed ambassador to Luxembourg. A member of the Republican National Committee since 1960, she had spent many years in government service, most recently as chair of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.

During the election that fall, 60 women were candidates for statewide office, though some were unsuccessful. Mildred Huffman, by then a two-term Republican state representative, failed in her bid to become the first female secretary of state. A Democrat and consumer advocate from Clayton, Alberta Slavin, did not succeed in winning nomination for lieutenant governor; in 1977, she was named to the Missouri Public Service Commission. During the campaign, she was quoted as saying, "I don't believe Missouri is ready for a statewide woman candidate."

But a new class of women legislators won election to the House. Among them were three Democrats--Kaye Steinmetz of Florissant, Karen McCarthy of Kansas City, Carole Roper Park of Sugar Creek--and Republican Marion Cairns of Webster Groves. Fourteen women and 149 men were now state representatives.

On the Senate side, a powerful new voice was added to Missouri political life with the election of Harriett Woods as Missouri's second female state senator. Strongly in favor of the ERA, she also campaigned on a platform of support for revision of the state's tax structure, including statewide reassessment of property tax and better methods of collection. The resulting new funds would help pay for education and services for the elderly, she said.

Women's issues did not always result in agreement between all women. Harriett Woods (left) and Mary Gant (right), both women serving in the Missouri Senate in 1977, represented opposing viewpoints during debate on the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1977, Woods led pro-ERA forces in the Senate, while Missouri's other woman senator, Mary Gant, became the amendment's most prominent opponent. "When we wanted to give equal treatment without regard to race we wrote it into the Constitution," Woods was quoted as saying, "and when we want to give equal treatment without regard to sex, we must write that into the Constitution, too." Gant argued that equality for women was already guaranteed by the Constitution.

State ratification of the ERA gained special significance because of events taking place on a national level, where Indiana became the 35th state to ratify the ERA. Three more states were needed to approve the ERA before it could become the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. In Missouri, public pressure was mounting on both sides of the issue. A vocal "Stop ERA" movement was arrayed against several groups that favored ERA passage; among them was the Missouri ERA Coalition, part of a national organization representing some 65 organizations--the League of Women Voters, AAUW, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, NOW and WPC, among others.

The Missouri vote was also affected by the outcome of special elections held in February 1977. Doris Quinn, a one-term state representative, ran as an independent in one special Senate election. Founder and former president of the MWPC, she was an outspoken ERA supporter who hoped to provide a strong pro-ERA voice in the Senate. Her bid failed; however, she continued to press for ERA passage as president of the Missouri ERA Coalition.

But when the ERA came to a vote, it lost in the Senate by a margin of 12 to 22. In fact, the ERA's 1977 defeat spelled an end to its supporters hopes for passage in Missouri. Despite attempts that continued through 1982, the ERA would not come to the Senate floor for another vote--and Missouri would become one of 15 states that did not ratify the ERA.

After the ERA debate, other important issues began to emerge during the 1977 session. Though their measure did not become law, Reps. Sue Shear and DeVerne Calloway developed a "displaced homemakers" bill to counsel and train women suddenly forced to seek employment.

And that December, a strong new member was added to the Senate when civil rights activist Gwen B. Giles was elected to fill an unexpired term; she became the first African-American woman to serve as a state senator. Within months of her election, one newspaper commented that Giles had already "shown signs of gutsiness, occasionally challenging the ruling power bloc on issues that could affect the state aid for her North Side district."

Another black woman--Leah Brock McCartney of St. Louis--also broke new ground in 1977 when she took her place on the Missouri Public Service Commission. A lawyer, she was also the first woman to serve as municipal judge of record in Missouri.

In March 1978, there were 14 women among 163 legislators in the House; three of 34 in the Senate. In a story published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the women also talked candidly about the problems they faced in office. "We're considered light-headed and fun to tease, but not all that bright," said Rep. Della Hadley. Rep. Judith O'Connor described an incident that occurred when she was a freshman representative. She was meeting with three senior members to talk about her first bill when one, apparently as a joke, locked the door, turned off the light and asked just how serious she was about her legislation.

In the same article, both Hadley and Sen. Gant, then chair of the powerful Senate Banking Committee, said that they found behind-the-scenes work--both discussions with colleagues and committee work--more important than floor debate. But some of the women added that they often felt excluded when male colleagues got together in the evenings for a drink and made decisions with no women around.

And most of the women interviewed said that along with their heavy legislative workload, they had to shoulder the extra burden of keeping households running and spending time with their families. "It's a very time-consuming job," said Rep. Karen McCarthy. "Even when I'm home, the phone rings constantly." Despite the difficulties of the job, these women were winning respect from other legislators and from the public. In July 1978, the Columbia Daily Tribune rated Sen. Harriett Woods as one of "the ten best legislators" of the 79th General Assembly. Skilled in floor debate, she had also successfully sponsored a bill that exempted prescription drugs and prosthetic and orthopedic devices from the state sales tax.

Later that year, the number of women running for office continued to rise. In the November 1978 election, Missouri fielded 66 candidates for statewide posts. Sandra Lee Reeves, a Democrat from Kansas City, was one of those elected to the House; another was the third African-American woman to serve as a Missouri legislator: Billie Boykins, a Democrat from St. Louis.

On the judicial side, Ann Quill Neiderlander, a St. Louis attorney for 40 years, was named magistrate judge for the 21st judicial circuit in St. Louis County. She was the first woman state court judge to serve full-time in a metropolitan area.

Early in 1979, Betty Cooper Hearnes--a familiar figure in Missouri politics--was once again back in the limelight. From 1965 to 1973, she had been the state's first lady while her husband, Warren E. Hearnes, served as governor. This time, she had won election in her own right as Democratic state representative from the 160th district in Mississippi County.

Betty Cooper Hearnes (left) made the transition from First Lady to state representative by capturing the 160th district in 1979.

During the 1979 session, women legislators created or sponsored a variety of new legislation. Sen. Mary Gant successfully sponsored two bills related to property tax reassessment and senior citizen relief. Rep. Gladys Marriott saw two of her bills passed that related to insurance benefits for state employees and retirement plan benefits for public officials. In her successful "Good Samaritan" bill, Rep. Irene Treppler gave medical personnel immunity from civil liability after administering emergency care at the scene of an accident.

After chairing a Senate committee that investigated health-care problems in nursing homes Sen. Harriett Woods sponsored the state Omnibus Nursing Home Act, a major revision of the laws governing the rights and responsibilities of nursing home owners. The bill, called by a newspaper "one of the nation's finest such laws," led to more stringent rules for nursing homes and a "bill of rights" for patients.

As it had before, the abortion issue came once again before the General Assembly. In 1975, the Missouri legislature had been the first in the U.S. to petition Congress for a constitutional ban on abortions. Since then, it had repeatedly tried to enact restrictions on abortion, but most had been overturned by the courts.

After a long, sometimes bitter debate, in which women legislators lined up on both sides of the issue, a new measure regulating abortions won approval from the legislature in 1979. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Judith O'Connor, contained two key requirements: that a woman under 18 years old obtain either written parental consent or court consent for an abortion; and that any woman considering an abortion be provided with specific information, including an anatomical description of the fetus at the time of abortion. Like previous laws, this one was later declared unconstitutional by the courts.

At the end of the decade, changes were stirring for women who wanted a louder voice in Missouri political life. A new organization, the Women's Register for Leadership, was founded by Marcia Mellitz of St. Louis, aided by Betty Cook Rottmann and Ella Bettinger, both of the AAUW: Sandra Eveloff of Kansas City; Sue Clancy of the Junior League; Agnes Garino of the League of Women Voters, and Sally Barker attorney. The goal of the group was to place more women in positions of statewide leadership; they tracked available jobs, published directories of positions on boards and commissions and created a bank of women candidates.

Return to Missouri Almanac, 1993-1994
Next article: The 1980s, A Decade of Growth, Part 1, 1980-1985