A Decade of Growth

Part 2 - 1986-1989

At the start of 1986, newspaper articles headlined the growing political influence of women in the state, even though the number of women serving in the state legislature--28 in the House and two in the Senate--was still below average, placing the state 28th nationally. While 14.2 percent of Missouri's legislature was composed of women, Kansas had 18.2 percent and New Hampshire 33 percent; the national average was 15 percent.

But Missouri women had been handling important issues and committee assignments, with growing respect from their male colleagues. Rep. Betty Hearnes had played a critical role in prison issues. Rep. Karen McCarthy, chair of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, had been an important voice in shaping the state lottery, while Rep. Annette Morgan, chair of the House Education Committee, was influential in deciding how much money would be spent on public schools. Rep. Carole Roper Park, chair of the budget committee that studied state financing for mental health, had been a key player in a $600 million capital improvements bond issue. Rep. Kaye Steinmetz, head of the House Children, Youth and Families Committee, had built a reputation as the legislature's leading advocate of children's services.

And other women headed important committees. Rep. Winnie Weber chaired the House Higher Education Committee, while Sen. Pat Danner headed the Senate Transportation Committee and served as vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.

In the 1986 session, Rep. Claire McCaskill successfully sponsored a House bill covering tougher standards for paroling state prison inmates. Rep. Mary Groves Bland passed a bill designating the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Day.

Rep. Gracia Backer has been elected to five terms in the House and currently serves as assistant majority floor leader.

But the most emotionally charged issue on the legislative docket was a major abortion-related bill, which finally became law. Under the measure, public funds and facilities could not be used for abortions. The bill said that life begins at conception and that unborn children have full legal rights. Further, it required doctors, before performing abortions, to test the viability of fetuses at 20 or more weeks gestation.

This bill first passed the House by a vote of 124-27, after Rep. Laurie Donovan described her successful attempt to have a healthy child after two stillbirths, despite her doctor's advice to have an abortion. Rep. Sheila Lumpe and Rep. Sue Shear spoke strongly against the bill, calling it unconstitutional and charging that it discriminated against the poor. The measure won quick approval, 23-5, in the Senate; Gov. John Ashcroft signed it into law, despite an unusual ten-page protest, signed by Reps. Lumpe, Shear, Martha Jarman, Karen McCarthy and Annette Morgan.

In 1986, Missouri sent a former state cabinet member to Washington, D.C. Paula V. Smith, who had served as director of the Missouri State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, was named administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Department of Labor, which enforces federal wage and hour laws under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

That fall, Rep. Sue Shear, honored a few months earlier by the Great Lakes Region of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was named to head an interim House committee to study laws relating to the rights of people sent involuntarily to state hospitals or mental institutions; Rep. Gracia Y. Backer, who had sponsored a bill in the previous session related to mental health records, was on the committee, as was Rep. Marion Cairns.

In the 1986 elections, more than 1,800 women ran for state legislatures nationwide and 57 women ran for the five top statewide executive posts. In Missouri, several new legislators were elected, among them: Reps. Opal W. Parks (D-Caruthersville), Mary M. Hagan-Harrell (D- Ferguson), Paula Carter (D-St. Louis), Sandra D. Kauffman (R-Kansas City), Jacqueline Townes McGee (D-Kansas City) and Beth Wheeler (D-Trenton).

But the most bitterly fought race of all was the battle between Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods and former Gov. Christopher Bond for a seat in the U.S. Senate. On television, in debates cosponsored by the League of Women Voters and the media, and in appearances across the state, the two candidates sparred on a variety of issues: Woods supported a temporary freeze on farm foreclosures, while Bond opposed it; Woods said Congress should work toward balancing the budget, but Bond wanted a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget; Woods called abortion a matter of personal choice, while Bond supported a constitutional amendment allowing states to ban or regulate abortions. Finally, Bond won election with 53 percent of the vote.

This trend toward more women in political life continued into 1987, with women holding 15.6 percent of state legislative seats. CAWP figures also showed that women occupied 14.6 percent of top elective statewide executive offices. And women, though still under-represented in state cabinets, were heading departments that were not traditionally considered "women's areas."

The public perception of female candidates was changing, too. A survey of 1,502 voters, reported by the National Women's Political Caucus, showed that 57 percent believed a woman could do as well as--or better than--a man as president of the United States. And 70 percent shared that same belief about a woman governor.

But in many states, including Missouri, the state laws related to women's rights in such areas as divorce and custody, domestic violence, inheritance, abortion, equal pay, and fair employment, credit and insurance, were said to be far from adequate. In a survey sponsored by the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, Missouri ranked 29th, despite some forward-looking laws in the area of child support and employment. And a study by the Missouri Women's Council showed that four out of five Missouri women surveyed had faced major barriers--family responsibilities, lack of education, sex bias or inadequate benefits--in finding jobs and advancing in their careers.

Nonetheless, women continued to carve out a larger niche in government. Rep. Kaye Steinmetz was appointed co-chair of the Children, Youth and Families Task Force of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Rep. Annette Morgan received an award from the Committee on Parents as Teachers, a state-funded program originally sponsored by Rep. Sue Shear, which offers parenting information to families with children from birth to school age and provides informal early screening. Rep. Mary C. Kasten was also a member of the statewide committee for the Parents as Teachers program.

And in March, Rep. Betty Hearnes assumed the chairmanship of the state's Democratic Party, at a time when both U.S. Senate seats and five of the state's top six offices were held by Republicans.

During the legislative session, these women and others continued to sponsor a raft of new measures. Rep. Gracia Y. Backer introduced a House bill that gave state employees who were adoptive parents the right to sick leave, annual leave or leave without pay. Rep. Judith O'Connor defined and established punishments for computer crimes. Sen. Irene Treppler passed a bill that forbade the explicit advertising of bingo games.

Wading once again into the abortion fray, Rep. Sue Shear sponsored a measure that would allow Medicaid payments to be used for abortions needed by women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest. The bill, supported by Missouri National Abortion Rights Anion League and opposed by Missouri Citizens for Life, died in committee.

A female legislator became the first to give birth while in office. Rep. Claire McCaskill, who was handling legislation related to children's day care and maternity leave, had a son in September 1987.

And another well-known figure in Missouri politics died that year: Lenore Loeb of St. Louis, immediate past president of the League of Women Voters. She had joined the League in 1957 and become a state board member in 1974, serving at various times as director of land use, energy, development and action.

Other League members were also achieving prominence on a variety of issues. Esther Lee Joyner Myers, former president of the Kansas City League, had a special interest in water policy, while Carolyn Leuthold, former president of the Columbia-Boone County Chapter, concentrated on housing, health studies and voter service. Other League members with a growing role in the organization included: Winfred Colwill, active in the area of energy issues; Betty Woodruff in environmental quality; and Betty Wilson in water resources, environmental quality, and hazardous and solid waste.

The year 1988 began with an announcement that a woman would be a candidate for Missouri governor. Betty Cooper Hearnes took on incumbent governor John Ashcroft in the race. She campaigned on a platform of increased aid to education, relief for prison overcrowding and support for the state's mental health system. Ashcroft was re-elected with 64 percent of the vote.

On the legislative side, only a few new women won office, among them Kathleen Steele (D-Kirksville), Jean Dixon (R-Springfield) and Carol Jean Mays (D-Independence).

Meanwhile, though, women legislators had been having an especially busy session. A 1988 CAWP study had shown that three times more women legislators than men had a priority bill aimed at concerns of women constituents; they were also more likely to sponsor bills dealing with children's welfare and health care.

In many of the bills they sponsored, Missouri women reflected this trend. Rep. Gracia Backer established the Missouri Commission for the Deaf. A bill from Rep. Mary Groves Bland set up an Office of Minority Health, while Rep. Paula Carter tackled voter registration issues. Rep. Sheila Lumpe passed a bill aimed at recruiting people who would act as surrogate parents for handicapped children, while Rep. Gladys Marriott worked on retirement issues. Rep. Claire McCaskill revised the manner of funding crime victims' compensation. A bill from Rep. Judith O'Connor prohibited physicians from performing abortions that were intended to provide fetal organs or tissue for medical transplantation. Rep. Sue Shear took on mental health issues. Once again Rep. Kaye Steinmetz worked on statutes dealing with property, child support and child custody in divorce cases;

On the judicial side, 1988 was also a banner year, as Judge Jean Hamilton, who had served as a St. Louis circuit court judge since 1982, was sworn in as a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District. And in a signal achievement, Ann Kettering Covington, who had been appointed in 1987 the state's first woman appellate judge as a member of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, was named the first woman judge on the Missouri Supreme Court.

In mid-1989, the U.S. Supreme Court took action that further inflamed the abortion debate, when it upheld key provisions of Missouri's 1986 abortion law in its Webster v. Reproductive Health Services ruling, which gave states the right to exercise broad authority in regulating abortion. Pro-life women in the legislature were elated; others admitted that pro-choice forces were a minority in the legislature and could not defeat new measures limiting abortion.

From left: Kaye Steinmetz, State Representative; Carole Roper Park, State Representative; Sue Shear, State Representative

As the decade ended, women had reached many milestones, and women's organizations had arisen to support them. Nationally, at least 35 political action committees gave money mostly to female candidates or had a largely female donor base. In a report to CAWP, 17 PACs said they gave more than $1.1 million to 464 female candidates in the 1988 elections.

In Missouri, the Women's Political Caucus was targeting, training and supporting promising women candidates. The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and Missouri Alliance for Choice were actively supporting pro-choice candidates and legislation, while the Missouri Citizens for Life, a pro-life group, was supporting candidates who opposed abortion.

And the Women's Action Fund, founded in Missouri in 1988 by Marcia Mellitz, Vivian Eveloff, Marcia Kerz and Julia Muller, was a new political anion committee in the state and the only one qualified for federal funding. Its membership, based largely in St. Louis, voted to determine which candidates statewide to support; their choices were "socially progressive" on such issues as abortion, child care, housing and education.

A well-known figure in the state died in 1989. Ella B. Stackhouse, a 1944 Lincoln University graduate, became the first African-American woman hired by the state as an extension home economist. During her active career in two Bootheel counties she served as mentor to many young people; she also founded the Negro Home Economics Scholarship Fund. Later she worked in the Kansas City area as a volunteer in the crusade against hunger.

By the end of the decade, several of the groups established before the 1970s were also looking for new ways to support women. The Missouri Extension Homemakers Association, Inc., a group founded in 1936 and representing today more than 8,000 women statewide, introduced in 1989 a program called Family Community Leadership (FCL). This program, co-chaired by former MEHA state president Betty Reynolds of Anderson, was aimed at increasing the leadership capacities of those women not traditionally represented in the public decision making process. Three years later, the organization would change its name to Missouri Association for Family and Community Education to reflect its new goals.

Despite this growing support, the Missouri legislature still had only 27 women as representatives and two as senators, among a sea of men. In a 1989 speech, Sen. Irene Treppler asked the key question: "Why are we, as public officials, still such a rare phenomenon, almost 70 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment? . . . Our share of political power is small."

Return to Missouri Almanac, 1993-1994
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