The 1990s

A Surge in Political Power

The new decade began in Missouri with an old, divisive issue: abortion. In January, a group of pro-choice supporters led by Judith Widdicombe, founder and president of Reproductive Health Services, a St. Louis-based abortion clinic, launched a petition drive for a constitutional amendment that would nullify the state's controversial 1986 law. Not long afterward, Rep. Sue Shear also proposed a bill to make sections of the 1986 law illegal.

Pro-life forces in the legislature countered with bills to prohibit or restrict abortions, including an amendment by Rep. Judith O'Connor that would prevent school nurses from referring students to organizations that offered abortions. Though the House passed this amendment, it died in the Senate, along with the education bill, sponsored by Rep. Annette Morgan, to which it was attached.

In the 1990 election, abortion was again an issue, with pro-choice forces claiming some victories in legislative races: Reps. Connie Wible (R-Springfield), May Scheve (D-St. Louis), Jo Ann Karll (D-High Ridge). Pro-life forces took credit for defeating Jan Martinette (R-Kansas City). Other representatives elected were Emmy L. McClelland (R-Webster Groves) and Patricia Secrest (R-Manchester). Beth Long (R-Lebanon), who had gone to the House in a special February election, was also re-elected.

A face-off between Joan Kelly Horn and incumbent Jack Buechner (R-Kirkwood) for a 2nd district congressional seat proved the most dramatic race of 1990. A pro-choice candidate, Horn also stressed her intention to focus on issues related to the St. Louis area. After a hard-fought campaign, Horn won by a razor-thin 54 votes.

Judge Jean Hamilton, then a state appeals judge in St. Louis, was also back in the news. In 1990, she became the first woman to serve as a federal district judge in Missouri when she was named to the Eastern District in St. Louis.

In the same year, Rep. Jean Dixon garnered national news coverage for her sponsorship of a House bill, which failed to pass, that required labeling on some audio recordings and restricting the attendance of minors to certain live performances.

Some women were successful, but national figures for 1991 showed that women still held few positions of power. Of 50 state governors, three were women; there were six lieutenant governors, four attorneys general; ten secretaries of state and 14 state treasurers. Only about six percent of the U.S. Congress, they were a more impressive 18 percent of state legislatures. Missouri ranked 28th overall in the number of female state legislators: two women in the Senate and 29 in the House, including 21 Democrats and eight Republicans. One newcomer was Marilyn Taylor Williams (D-Dudley), who won office in a special election.

By 1992, a survey by the National Women's Political Caucus was showing an unprecedented rise in the number of women cabinet officials, to a substantial 23.3 percent. But the same survey ranked the administration of Gov. John Ashcroft as third from the bottom in the number of women appointees. Donna White, former administrative law judge from St. Louis who had been named state director of Labor and Industrial Relations in 1989, was the only woman among Ashcroft's 11 cabinet officers.

In June 1992, the Missouri Women's Council, in conjunction with the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, sponsored a regional roundtable discussion for women cabinet members, elected officials and legislators to discuss women's participation in public service. While those attending described some "facilitating factors," such as support from family and colleagues, they also pinpointed some barriers to service, such as the "good-old-boy network," a lack of self-confidence, prevailing sexual stereotypes and the difficulties of juggling family and work. Yet overall, their advice to women considering a public service career was to "go for it; be a risk-taker."

As the August primary races got under way, it became clear that more women than ever were taking that risk and seeking nominations for public office. A record number of Missouri women--90 in all--ran for statewide, congressional or legislative positions.

When the dust had settled from the primaries, it appeared that 1992 might really be the "Year of the Woman" in Missouri. From a crowded field of 14 contenders, Geri Rothman-Serot, St. Louis County councilwoman, won the U.S. Senate nomination. Although Judith K. Moriarty, Pettis County clerk, spent only $16,000 on the contest, far less than her three opponents, she captured the Democratic nomination for secretary of state. Margaret B. Kelly, state auditor, won the Republican nomination for lieu- tenant governor, while Mary Ross, St. Louis alderman, came in a creditable second for the Democratic nomination. And former state Sen. Pat Danner garnered the Democratic nomination for the 6th district congressional seat.

From left: Pat Danner, U.S. Congress, 6th District; Irene Treppler, State Senator, 1st District; Ann Covington, Missouri Supreme Court, Chief Justice

On the legislative side, Rep. Betty Hearnes overwhelmed two other candidates for a state Senate nomination. Sen. Irene Treppler fended off a challenge from a well-known legislator. Political newcomers Nancy Farmer and Joan Bray both defeated long-time incumbents to win Democratic nominations for state representative. Because of redistricting, male and female incumbents had squared off in two races, and Reps. Mary Hagan-Harrell (D-Ferguson) and Carol Jean Mays (D-Independence) both won.

Surprising victories were taking place on the local level as well. Out of a field of seven candidates, all the rest male, Dee Joyce Hayes won the Democratic nomination for St. Louis circuit attorney; in Kansas City, former state Rep. Claire McCaskill also won the Democratic nomination for prosecuting attorney.

When the November 1992 election results came in, they showed many successes. Notable among them was the victory of Judith K. Moriarty, a Democrat who had served for ten years as Pettis County clerk; now Missouri's 34th secretary of state, the first woman ever elected to the office and only the third woman elected to statewide office in Missouri. Secretary Moriarty, who campaigned on easier access to the polls and greater participation in the electoral process; would see passage of four of her priority bills in the 1993 session of the Missouri General Assembly. Among them, postcard registration, making Missouri the 28th state in the nation to allow voters to register by mail. As the state's chief elections official, one of Ms. Moriarty's goals is to bring Missouri into the top ten states in terms of voter registration and participation. In September 1993, Secretary Moriarty launched an aggressive statewide youth voter registration program called "Missouri 1st Vote."

Pat Danner, a ten-year veteran of the Missouri legislature who chaired the Senate transportation committee, defeated her Republican rival by a 55-to-45 percent margin in the 6th district congressional race, making Danner the only Missouri woman currently on Capitol Hill. Prior to serving in the legislature, Ms. Danner was appointed chair of the Ozark Regional Planning Commission by President Jimmy Carter.

But there were also some key losses. Geri Rothman-Serot was defeated by incumbent Christopher Bond for the seat in the U.S. Senate. State Sen. Roger Wilson won against Margaret Kelly to become the state's new lieutenant governor, however, Kelly remained in office as state auditor, becoming the only Republican to hold statewide office.

Another stinging defeat for a woman candidate came in the race for U.S. Congress between incumbent Rep. Joan Kelly Horn, a Democrat, and former state Rep. James M. Talent, a Republican. During her term in office, Horn had worked to protect St. Louis jobs and to win approval for a new study of an extension of the area's new light-rail line. In the election, which took place in a newly redrawn 2nd district, she lost by a slender 50-to-48 percent margin.

The issue of abortion played a role in certain elections. In the race for state representative in the 84th district, Democratic candidate Joan Bray, who had worked as a district director for U.S. Rep. Joan Kelly Horn, ran as a strong pro- choice advocate. Her opponent, James N. Riley, had served as a state representative since 1972; he had co-sponsored a bill aimed at providing a pregnant woman with prenatal care and counseling that might encourage her not to have an abortion. In the November election, Bray was the surprise victor.

Nationally, the results of this election meant a larger role for women in politics than ever before. Aided in some cases by Emily's List for Democratic Women, the bipartisan Women's Campaign Fund or the National Women's Political Caucus, they won 20.4 percent of legislative seats nationwide and 22 percent of statewide elective offices.

In Missouri, appointments by newly elected Governor Mel Carnahan also boosted the role of women. Of the 190 appointments he made, 65 were women. Four were chosen to head state departments: Coleen Kivlahan, M.D., Health; Janette M. Lohman, Revenue; Jeanette R. McCrary, Labor and Industrial Relations; Dora B. Schriro, Corrections. Schriro is the first woman to head the Missouri prison system and one of only six women to do so nationwide.

In 1992, Judith K. Moriarty ran for secretary of state; her campaign issues included easier voter registration and ballot access. Following her election, those ideas became reality. On June 14, 1993, Governor Mel Carnahan signed into law legislation that authorized post-card registration, signaling a significant victory for Missouri's first woman secretary of state.

There were other 1993 milestones. In July, Judge Ann K. Covington began a two-year term as chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. She is the first woman ever to head the seven-member court. Justine Del Muro, appointed in July, became the first Hispanic woman to serve as circuit judge. And in August, Anita Gorman, Kansas City, North, became the first woman to serve on the four-member Missouri Conservation Commission.

And a crop of 11 new female legislators arrived in Jefferson City for the start of the 1993 legislative session: Reps. Joan Bray (D-University City), Harriet Brown (R-Wentzville), Norma Champion (R-Springfield), Nancy Farmer (D-St. Louis), Ilene Ordower (D-St. Louis), Cindy Ostmann (R-St. Peters), Jan Polizzi (D-St, Louis), Luann Ridgeway (R-Smithville), Mary Lou Sallee (R-Ava), Gloria Weber (D-St. Louis) and Deleta Williams (D-Warrensburg).

As they had in the past, these women continued to break new ground both in the committees they headed and in the legislation they passed. Rep. Gracia Backer sponsored a bill to increase pensions for state employees; Rep. Karen McCarthy helped establish a gambling commission to monitor the new riverboat gambling law. Rep. Annette Morgan co-sponsored a school-aid bill that will have a major impact on school financing. Rep. Carole Roper Park helped save funding for the Department of Mental Health. Rep. Sue Shear worked to extend insurance coverage for homemakers who are suddenly widowed or divorced, while Rep. Kathleen Steele handled a complex bill making changes in insurance laws. After years of effort, Rep. Kaye Steinmetz passed three bills aimed at helping families, and Sen. Irene Treppler helped create a 17-member earthquake-preparedness commission.

In 1993 and beyond, much work remains to be done. There is still only one Missouri woman in the state Senate and one in the U.S. Congress. No Missouri woman has ever been a U.S. senator or Missouri governor, and 30 of the state's 44 judicial circuits have no women judges. In its 1993 Women's Action Plan, originated by chair Shirley Breeze of St. Louis County, the Missouri Women's Network pointed to urgent legislative needs that still exist in a dozen key areas affecting women and their families.

On the other hand, the 11 female legislators who were serving in 1972 have increased to 37 women--a record high. On the judicial side, nearly 8 percent of the 342 judges in the Missouri judiciary are now women, including one each on the Court of Appeals in Kansas City and St. Louis and one on the Supreme Court.

And as they have in the past, women continue to raise important issues and work for change. In 1993, for example, the AAUW, the League of Women Voters and the Missouri Women's Network held "legislative days" in the Capitol, an event which they have sponsored for several years. They first held a breakfast for all General Assembly members, then reviewed organizational priorities and strategies, invited women legislators for lunch and discussion of issues and later promoted the groups' issue priorities with hometown legislators and key House and Senate chairs and leaders.

Other organizations are celebrating years of success in meeting their goals and attracting new members. In July 1994, the 75th anniversary of the National Federation of Business and professional Women's Clubs will be marked in St. Louis. From its small start, the organization has grown to 85 local chapters and 2,300 members.

From their small start years ago, Missouri women in political life have also grown in number--and they continue to make a difference. In an interview that took place more than two decades ago, Congresswoman Leonor K. Sullivan outlined the role of women in politics, and the role she described remains just as vital today. Women, she said, can make a key contribution to political life by raising issues that are crucial to women and families. More generally, they can join with their male colleagues in shaping political debate and forging critical legislation.

And each woman in politics--like every good politician--must always keep in view a mission that can never be diluted or forgotten. "In today's world," added Congresswoman Sullivan, "she has a real responsibility to help make a better place for all of us."

Return to Missouri Almanac, 1993-1994