The 1980s

A Decade of Growth

Part 1 - 1980-1985

As a new decade began, women were clearly playing a more prominent role in national political life. Statistics gathered by CAWP showed that more women than ever were running for office; the number of women elected to state legislatures across the country had more than doubled in ten years. This trend would continue over the next few years, with women moving into legislative leadership positions and state cabinet posts, especially those related to health and social services.

But studies also showed that Missouri was below average in women's participation in government. No woman had ever been elected to statewide executive office. Just suggesting that a woman should run, said Rep. Gladys Marriott in an interview, was guaranteed to produce blank stares. "At first they are interested, then they are in total shock that someone would broach the subject."

At a time when the national average was 12 percent, state women held 437--or eight percent--of the statewide elected, legislative, county and municipal posts. Missouri had no women in its delegation to the United States Congress at a time when the national average was three percent. Although in line with the average national percentage of female legislators, Missouri had only 397 women--or 11 percent--among its 4,751 municipal officials, compared to a national figure of 13 percent.

Still, a few Missouri women were moving into new leadership positions. Paula V. Smith, director of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, was one of two women serving in the cabinet of Governor Christopher Bond; the other was Shaila Aery, promoted from deputy commissioner to commissioner of higher education in 1982.

Gwen Giles (left) became the first African-American woman to serve in the Missouri Senate when she was elected in 1977. She later served as St. Louis city assessor.

During the 1980 session, Missouri's 22 women legislators pressed ahead with successful new bills. A measure from Rep. Billie Boykins broadened Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits for families with an unemployed parent, while another bill from Rep. DeVerne Calloway authorized free transportation for some St. Louis schoolchildren. Sen. Mary Gant developed a bill that covered adult abuse by a household member, while Sen. Harriett Woods designed protective services for the elderly.

That year, the group of women legislators lost two members when Reps. Della Hadley and Dotty Doll--both three-term representatives from Kansas City--announced they would not run again. Hadley was an outspoken member of the Education Committee, and Doll a vice-chair of the Urban Affairs Committee and member of Appropriations; one Kansas City newspaper called their departures "a severe blow to Kansas City" due to their "strong and positive impact on constructive legislation."

Other setbacks came during the November election. Sen. Mary Gant, three-term state representative and two-term state senator, lost in her re-election bid; she later took over as chair of the State Board of Mediation. An African-American candidate, Donna R. White of St. Louis, failed to win the Republican primary in the secretary of state's race. Four candidates--Elsa D. Hill, a one-term state representative elected in 1966 who was running for the 1st district; Stella Sollars, Republican from the 5th district; Ann Kutscher, Democrat from the 8th district; and Janice Noland, a lawyer and Republican from the 8th district--also lost their bids for seats in the U.S. Congress.

Although the number of women candidates had been increasing each year, the total dropped this time to a disappointing 62. Republican women were principally affected; fewer ran in 1980 than in the previous four elections. Political analysts ascribed the decline to general political apathy, to career demands that left women little time for political life or resolution of the ERA issue in 1980. Others said that some women could not run for office because they lacked money both from their political parties and from women contributors.

Despite their smaller numbers, women scored several important victories in the November election. In the Senate, Harriett Woods won re-election. In the House, six new women were elected. joining 12 who were returning. The freshmen included two Kansas City Democrats--Annette Morgan, who replaced Dotty Doll in the 29th District, and Mary Groves Bland, who beat an eight-term incumbent in the 30th House District--and two St. Louis Democrats, Sheila Lumpe and Eileen McCann. Among the Republican newcomers were Donna Coleman of St. Louis County and Jean Mathews of Florissant, assistant state director of the Missouri Citizens Council.

In 1980, a new organization--the Coalition Against Domestic Violence--was founded in Missouri. Over the years the group would hire an executive director, Colleen Coble; work with shelters across the state; and lobby for measures to criminalize marital rape, change custody visitation law, enact a stalking bill and add new provisions to the Adult Abuse Act.

Early in 1981, the small group of women legislators in Missouri lost one member when Sen. Gwen Giles resigned to accept a new job as St. Louis city assessor. Chair of the Interstate Cooperation Committee, she had sponsored bills that included direct bank deposit of public assistance payments and compensation of personal-injury crime victims. Unsuccessful Senate sponsor of the ERA in 1980, she also worked that year with Rep. Billie Boykins, vice chair of the House Congressional Reapportionment Committee, to redraw district lines. She was co-chair of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Just as Giles was leaving, another woman legislator was coming to office. Rep. Earlene Burbes (R-South St. Louis County) won her seat in a special election; her campaign was managed by fellow Republican Rep. Irene Treppler. Burbes' election was seen as representing a trend toward Republican takeover of suburban districts in large urban areas.

In the 1981 session, women legislators were successful in passing legislation on a variety of issues. Rep. DeVerne Calloway sponsored a House bill that raised the ceiling on school district purchases requiring competitive bidding. Rep. Gladys Marriott, chair of the House Retirement Committee, shepherded through the House five bills involving state employee retirement laws. Sen. Harriett Woods sponsored a Senate bill relating to Medicaid benefits.

And once again, abortion made its way onto the Assembly docket. A measure co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Judith O'Connor, was intended to permit welfare-funded abortions only when the mother's life was at stake. While this bill failed, an amendment with similar provisions was successfully added to a bill, sponsored by Sen. Harriett Woods, that permitted Medicaid benefits for low-income elderly people who received personal care services at home.

In 1981, a Jefferson City woman also took over for a two-year stint as executive secretary and executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party. Much earlier Jane Simmons had worked for the Democratic National Committee and the U.S. Senatorial Democratic Campaign Committee; more recently, she had served as legislative secretary for two state representatives, one from Neosho and the other from Kansas City. Gwen Giles became the first African-American woman to serve in the Missouri Senate when she was elected in 1977. She later served as St. Louis city assessor.

Women legislators remained active in 1982, sponsoring a raft of new legislation. Rep. Marion Cairns, a three-term legislator, helped develop new child-care measures which became law. Though she was unsuccessful in this session, Rep. Sue Shear pressed ahead with her long-time goal of rewriting Missouri statutes that contained sex-based language or discriminated on the basis of sex. Rep. Kaye Steinmetz passed an emergency package of federal compliance legislation and changes to the state's child abuse, child-support enforcement and foster-care statutes.

Others handled different measures. Rep. Karen McCarthy sponsored legislation that defined a new system for collecting debts owed the state. Rep. Carole Roper Park developed a measure that provided for changes in the mental-health laws. Sen. Harriett Woods sponsored a bill to restructure the laws and penalties related to drunk driving.

During the summer of 1982, Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Department Director Paula V. Smith was in the news for working to revive a long-dormant group: the Missouri Commission on the Status of Women. Born in 1967, the commission was intended to conduct research on the legal status of women and their equality of opportunity. Rep. DeVerne Calloway sponsored a bill in the House that would have provided funding for the commission, but it was not enacted. So under its president, Alberta Meyer of Jefferson City, the commission worked without funds. In its early years, it made recommendations concerning equal pay for women and a minimum-wage law. The legislature finally appropriated $10,000 for the commission's operation in 1973, then reduced yearly allotments--first to $2,500 and then to zero after the commission published a booklet on the ERA. The group fell into dormancy until Smith revived it, appointing new members to fill vacancies among its 15 slots. New chair was Kay Woomack of Washington, Governor Bond's campaign manager in Franklin County.

That summer, a ground-breaking political campaign was under way across the state as state Sen. Harriett Woods challenged the Republican incumbent, U.S. Sen. John Danforth, in the race for the United States Senate. She won overwhelmingly in the primary, defeating her opponent by some 123,000 votes. In the general election, she was considered a long shot, but her campaign attracted national attention. By October, some polls showed Woods and Danforth running neck-and-neck; on election day, Danforth won by 26,247 votes--only 1.7 percent of the total. Woods emerged from her narrow loss with enhanced stature in state and national politics.

Judicial elections sent women to the bench in 1982. Ellen Roper became the first woman elected to the state's circuit bench, when she won her race for the 13th judicial circuit court. A Republican, she had previously been appointed and later elected Boone County probate judge. She was also a former assistant attorney general and one-time director of the Missouri Human Rights Commission.

In legislative election battles, a new group of women emerged victorious: Democrats Gracia Y. Backer of New Bloomfield, Martha Foley Jarman of Excelsior Springs and Claire McCaskill of Kansas City, an attorney who had been assistant Jackson County prosecutor, went to the House; Pat Danner, a Smithville Democrat, went to the Senate (just as her son, Rep. Steve Danner, was elected to the House). Republicans Laurie B. Donovan of Florissant, Mary C. Kasten of Cape Girardeau and Bonnie Sue Cooper of Kansas City were all elected to the House.

A new kind of woman was vying for political office, according to CAWP studies. Like many of their male colleagues, women officials often held graduate degrees, more than half of them in law. Some 28 percent belonged to groups such as the League of Women Voters or the AAUW and 40 percent to feminist organizations. One-half of state legislators reported that they had received some support from a women's group in their campaigns.

Women in the electorate were also taking a new interest in politics. Some analysts said they were savoring the 1982 election victories; others thought they were energized by the ERA debate. But all agreed that women--especially professional women--were becoming more politically active themselves, by joining political clubs, for example, and supporting other women's political campaigns. "I see a lot more women taking a front role in politics," said Jody Newman, Harriet Woods' campaign manager, in a newspaper interview, "doing less of the envelope licking and getting involved at a higher level.

During 1983, a survey of women attending a CAWP-sponsored National Forum for State Legislators indicated that the concerns of women in politics had also changed over the previous decade. I n contrast to an earlier generation of women public officials, these legislators generally agreed that they had a special responsibility to their female constituents and that they should pay close attention to the issues affecting these women, especially to equal pay and comparable worth, children's concerns or the economic rights of older and divorced women.

With this new kind of consciousness on the part of politicians and the public, the time was right for women's political organizations to assume a higher profile. In 1983, a new group formed: the Missouri Women's Network, a consortium of women's groups that banded together to promote education and women's issues. Along with seminars and conferences they monitored state and national legislation in such areas as childcare, mammography, Medicaid expansion and domestic violence.

Existing groups, such as the AAUW, also worked toward political reform. Natalie Tackett, who had served as research analyst for the Missouri House since 1981, took over as president of the Missouri Division of the AAUW in 1983. During her term of office, the AAUW pressed for legislation in such areas as solid-waste management, comparable worth and state daycare licensing laws. Tackett, who had served on the steering committee for the Missouri ERA Coalition, would later work to develop the AAUW's national legislative program concerning women's work and women's worth, she would also become director of the State Oversight Division's Committee on Legislative Research .

Women legislators also promoted new measures during the 1983 session. Rep. Sandra Lee Reeves (D-Kansas City) sponsored a bill, which sparked extensive debate before it passed requiring children under the age of four to be protected by child-restraint systems. Sen. Harriett Woods introduced a comprehensive revision of the Missouri statutes related to guardianship of the elderly, the developmentally disabled and the mildly retarded.

Since 1984 was an election year, women were once again on the campaign trail nationally, with Geraldine Ferraro heading the roster as a vice-presidential candidate. A record number-- ten women in all--ran for seats in the U.S. Senate. When the election returns came in, though, Ferraro and nine of the would-be senators had lost; only one, Nancy Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican, was elected.

Republican women generally fared well in Missouri, too. Irene Treppler, a six-term representative and Republican Caucus secretary in the House, won election to the state Senate Republicans Jan Martinette of Grandview and Joan Tobin of Lake St. Louis were elected as state representatives. However, Carrie Francke, a Republican and assistant attorney general who formerly worked for Sen. John Danforth, lost her race for the 9th district congressional seat held by Rep. Harold Volkmer; she lost another political bid in 1986 before she was killed in an automobile accident in 1989.

Margaret Kelly was the first woman to hold statewide executive office. She was appointed State Auditor in 1984 and elected in 1986 and 1990.

Margaret Kelly, a Republican, became the first woman to hold statewide office when she was sworn in as state auditor on July 16,1984. Kelly, a certified public accountant and Cole County auditor since 1982, was appointed by Governor Christopher Bond; she went on to win election in her own right in 1986 and again in 1990.

In the lop-sided 1984 election, only one Democrat won a major victory. Sen. Harriett Woods became the first Missouri woman elected to statewide office when she easily captured the position of lieutenant governor. During her term of office, she would conduct hearings around the state to seek input on how the state could help small businesses; her office set up a telephone line, "Statewide Volunteers for Efficiency (SAVE)," which state workers could call with reports of waste or inefficiency.

Women participated in the election in other ways as well. The League of Women Voters sponsored a 1984 presidential debate in Kansas City between President Ronald Reagan and Vice President Walter Mondale. Barbara Bailey, president of the Kansas City League, chaired the arrangements.

Rep. Jean H. Mathews was honored as one of two outstanding state legislators in 1984 by the American Legislative Exchange Council in recognition, among other things, for her efforts to toughen laws against drunk drivers, to end court-ordered busing to achieve school integration and to crack down on those who use children in pornography.

Late in 1984, Rep. Betty Hearnes, chair of the Correctional Institutions and Problems Committee, made a strong bid but failed to win election as the first female majority floor leader of the Missouri House.

Some key legislation, sponsored by women, sprang out of the 1985 session. Rep. Gladys Marriott continued her work of clarifying and revising state health insurance and retirement benefits. Rep. Karen McCarthy proposed legislation to change the statutes governing compensation to crime victims. With state officials trying to attract a General Motors plant to Missouri, Rep. Judith O'Connor handled mandatory seat-belt legislation, a major incentive in wooing the plant. Rep. Kaye Steinmetz initiated a comprehensive an designed to revise the statutes relating to termination of parental rights and adoption.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Judith O'Connor, sparked a wave of controversy in the House. The measure was designed to protect anti-abortion activists; however, critics charged that it could result in the state condoning acts of violence, such as arson or assault, if the person involved believed the crime was necessary to save a human life. When the House Judiciary Committee would not hold a hearing on the bill, the Speaker of the House took the unusual step of transferring it to a committee, Civil and Criminal Justice, where it would get a hearing.

Also in 1984, Edith L. Messina was appointed the first woman circuit judge in Jackson County. She was retained by 16th circuit voters in 1992.

In March 1985, the Missouri Commission on the Status of Women was back in the news again. After its brief period of new life in 1982, the 18-year-old commission had fallen once again into dormancy. With the help of two tie-breaking votes cast by Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, the Senate decided to replace the commission with a new body, the Council on Women's Economic Development and Training, designed to help retrain women to enter the workforce, promote occupational mobility among women in lower- and middle-level jobs and initiate programs to help women in small business.

Two widows were named to fill the House seats of their late husbands, who had died within months of each other. The 14th Legislative Democratic Committee chose Lois Meeker Osbourn, a Democrat of Hannibal, to finish the term of Rep. D.R. "Ozzie" Osbourn, and Mildred "Millie" Humphreys, a Democrat of St. Joseph, was named to replace Rep. Roy Humphreys Jr.

Return to Missouri Almanac, 1993-1994
Next article: The 1980s, A Decade of Growth, Part 2, 1986-1989