Missouri Women in Political Life

Across the United States, newspaper headlines proclaimed 1992 "The Year of the Woman" in national politics. More women ran for political office than ever before; 47 won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, while four were newly elected to the Senate. In state legislatures nationwide, 20.4 percent of the seats went to women, along with 22 percent of statewide elected offices.

Rep. Karen McCarthy, left, is among the record number of women legislators now serving in the legislature.

The Missouri elections reflected these national trends. Amid a series of stunning primary upsets, a record number of women--90 in all--won nominations in legislative, congressional and statewide races. In the November election, there were many victories, mingled with some disappointing losses. But overall, women emerged with 37 out of 197 legislative seats--the largest number they had ever held.

Political analysts attribute these gains to many factors. The candidates themselves worked tirelessly on the campaign trail and developed shrewd new ways to raise funds or garner endorsements. Behind the scenes, women's groups such as the Missouri Women's Political Caucus, the Missouri Women's Network, and abortion rights and pro-life organizations played pivotal roles in recruiting, training and supporting female candidates. An intangible factor--the mood of the electorate--was also at work, with voters turning to women as a new brand of political leader.

Despite the excitement of last November, though, the real story in Missouri is not simply the gains and losses of one election year. The successes of that election represent the culmination of a struggle for political power that has been gaining momentum across the state for at least the past 20 years. In growing numbers, women have been seeking and winning office. And once in power, they have been shaping policy, sponsoring key legislation and heading legislative committees or holding cabinet posts once considered strictly male territory.

The contrast between 1972 and 1992 is striking. Studies by the Center for the American Woman and Politics (CAWP), part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, show that Missouri had 44 women candidates for statewide posts in 1972--less than half the number running 20 years later. After the 1972 election, women made up exactly five percent of the state legislature, with ten in the House and Mary Gant (D-Kansas city)--the first woman ever--in the Senate. But that was less than one-third the number who hold office in 1993.

Women have made substantial progress on other fronts as well. In 1972, no Missouri cabinet officer had ever been a woman; in 1993, there were four. In 1972, no woman had ever served on the circuit trial bench, the Missouri Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court; in 1993, Ann K. Covington became chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. In 1972, no Missouri woman had run for governor, served as state executive officer, run for the U.S. Senate or been elected lieutenant governor. Although DeVerne Calloway, a Democrat from St. Louis had served in the Missouri House since 1962, no black woman had yet been elected to the Senate. Since 1972, however, all those posts have been held or sought by women.

In the past two decades, Missouri women have also claimed a place on legislative committees once considered the province of men. In 1993, Rep. Karen McCarthy (D-Kansas City) heads the powerful Ways and Means Committee, while Rep. Kathleen Steele (D-Kirksville) chairs Science, Technology and Critical Issues. Reps. Sheila Lumpe (D-University City), Carole Roper Park (D-Sugar Creek), and Gracia Y. Backer (D-New Bloomfield) who is also assistant majority leader in the House, head important appropriations subcommittees. Rep. Sue Shear (D-Clayton) chairs a House and Senate Statutory Joint Committee on Correctional Institutions. Rep. Mary Groves Bland (D-Kansas City) chairs the Public Safety and Health Committee; Rep. May Scheve (D-St. Louis), secretary for the Democratic caucus, is also vice chair of Energy and Environment.

Other women have focused on more traditional issues, with notable success. After years of work, Rep. Kaye Steinmetz (D-Florissant), chair of the Children, Youth and Families Committee, successfully sponsored legislation in the 1993 session to regulate church-run day care centers, strengthen child-support enforcement and set up a family court system. Rep. Annette Morgan (D-Kansas City), chair of the Education Committee, sponsored the new $310 million school-aid package that included provisions for educational reform.

And Missouri women are making their mark on national politics as well. Like Sen. Irene Treppler (R-Mattese) and Rep. Gladys Marriott (D-Kansas City) before her, Rep. Bonnie Sue Cooper (R-Kansas City) was elected president of the National Order of Women Legislators; Rep. McCarthy will serve as the first woman president of the National Conference of State Legislators in 1994. Former lieutenant governor Harriett Woods is now president of the National Women's Political Caucus and national chair of the Coalition for Women's Appointments.

Yet despite some vivid successes, the 20-year record of women in statewide politics is not solely a story of progress. On the roster of states, Missouri is far from a leader in giving a place to women in politics. CAWP figures show that, early in 1992, Missouri ranked 24th in the number of female legislators, but slipped to 29th place after the November election. In the state Senate, women have never held more than three of the 34 seats at any one time; in 1993, the lone female member is Sen. Irene Treppler, since Sen. Pat Danner (D-Smithville) was elected to Congress.

And at times women legislators have been sharply divided among themselves, particularly in battles over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and abortion rights--both issues that have dominated legislative debate over the past two decades. In 1972, after House approval two years earlier, the U.S. Senate voted to accept the ERA, thus setting the stage for ratification battles in state legislatures across the country. And in October 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing arguments in a new abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade; three months later, the Court's landmark decision in the case touched off a firestorm of national controversy.

Overall, though, Missouri women have been making steady, impressive gains on the political scene. Once community activists and campaign workers, they have moved into the political mainstream as judges, legislators, state executives and cabinet officials. At the district and county level, they are filling hundreds of official slots. Still, women represent 53 percent of the population, and political parity may seem far away. But women have come a long way since 1972 and their role in statewide politics is certain to grow in the future.

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