Women in Missouri's Statehouse
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Women in Missouri's Statehouse

Date: May 8, 2008
By: Rebecca Beitsch and Bria Scudder
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Although one-half of Missouri's statewide elected officials are women, some women in Missouri's legislature say gender equality has not been extended to the state legislature.

Among those making that observation include a woman who holds the distinction of being the highest ranking woman in the legislature and the highest ranking black in the legislature -- Sen. Maida Coleman, who is the Democratic floor leader in the Senate.


Coleman said gender discrimination is prevalent in the Capitol today. 


"I am discriminated against more because I am a woman than because I'm an African-American," said Coleman, a St. Louis senator who is term-limited out of the Senate this year.


The St. Louis Democrat said that gender inequalities co-exist in the Capitol and in society. "We're a progressive country, but we're not progressive toward women." Coleman said. "There are folks in this country who believe women should not be in a leadership position," she said, sitting beneath a sign in her office that reads: "Eat rice, potatoes make your butt big."

In Missouri, women hold four of the eight statewide elected offices -- secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer and one of the two U.S. Senate seats. But of the 197 state legislative positions, only 39 of the seats are held by women.  Ironically, that near 20 percent representation of women is lower than the 25 percent mandated in the Iraqi constitution for the minimum number of women in its representative body.

"We thought that a number higher than 25 percent was good enough for them," said Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, reflecting on the American presence in the Iraqi constitution writing process. "So why isn't it good enough for us?"

Baker said she would like to see that percentage extended to 50, a number she said is more reflective of the population. "We're decades from there," Baker said. "I hope it happens in my lifetime."

The influence of women in the legislature reached its historical pinnacle for women in 2003 when Catherine Hanaway was elected speaker of the Missouri House -- the highest legislative position held by a woman in Missouri's history.

Some women legislators say an example of the difficulties women encounter involve committee assignments. One example cited by women legislators involves the 10-member conference committee on the budget. 

Conference committees usually are composed of the more senior members from each party who have been involved with the bill before the committee.

For the budget conference committee, however, not one woman was among the three Senate Republican conferees. Instead, the most junior male member of the Appropriations Committee -- Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles County -- rather than two Republican women on the Appropriations Committee who had more seniority -- Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, and Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville.

The exclusion of the two senior GOP Appropriations Committee members was criticized by the conference committee's sole woman member -- Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County.

"It's happened on both sides of the aisle. It happened my first year," Bray said. "I don't appreciate that. That kind of thing should not happen."

The appointments are made by the Senate's president pro tem -- Sen. Mike Gibbons, R-St. Louis County. Gibbons said he appointed Rupp rather than the more experienced women to the conference committee because of term limits.

Gibbons said that because of term limits that force legislators out of office after eight years, he wanted to make sure junior members get experience in important committees.

Bray said term limits are not an excuse. "That is an issue but I don't think in the make-up of the committee now, that's an argument."

A couple of female legislators said women have to go the extra mile to achieve goals and be seen in an equal light.

But a few other women legislators said gender discrepancies do not play a role in their experiences in Jefferson City. And in the middle of this issue, one woman legislator, Ridgeway, said she simply did not have enough time to even think about gender issues involving her fellow members.

"It's still a men's club," said Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon. Davis said that she is left out when the men in the House get together to socialize. "For one thing, I don't chew tobacco; and I don't smoke cigars, and I don't play poker. So where does that leave me?" she asked.

"This is a terribly sexist building," said Jeanette Oxford, D-St. Louis. After hearing males make comments such as, "I wish my wife would buy a dress like that," and "I'm glad you're wearing a skirt. I like being able to see your legs," she suggested that there be an annual training on sexual harassment in the legislature.


But not all women share the perspective of Coleman and Davis on gender discrimination in the legislature.


For Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, being a woman isn't an obstacle in the House. "I don't see it any different than being a man," she said. "I don't see the glass ceiling."


"To me it hasn't been any different than being a man, I don't think," said Rep. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis. Comparing it to her full-time job as a construction worker, Walsh said that conditions for women are better in the Capitol than in construction work in her district.


Cunningham said that hard work is the only way for women to advance in the legislature. "You hear a lot from women's groups that they feel like that they are being disadvantaged, discriminated against, that type of thing, and they want equal, equal, equal. I want to earn equal, and I'm finding I'm able to. I'm not trying to get any special dispensation," Cunningham said.


To show that her initiatives are independent of her gender, Cunningham said that she makes it a point to avoid women's groups. "I purposefully never join a women's organization," Cunningham said. "Just because we're women doesn't make us all alike."


Cunningham later acknowledged that there were things that set her apart from her male counterparts. "I do have some extra challenges in dealing with men who sometimes are not used to working with a strong woman," she said.


"I don't think oftentimes men purposefully leave you out. I think people naturally gravitate toward people like them, and so sometimes if you're working in an area where it's majority men, you have to kind of insert yourself sometimes because they don't naturally associate with you," she said.


Coleman cited a time when a fellow female senator, a Republican, wrote a piece of legislation that was taken over by some of her Republican males. "Democratic women feel we are equal to our male counterparts. Democratic women don't let our male colleagues tell us where our place is," Coleman said.


By the same token, Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, said it was her male party leadership that has encouraged her to preside over the Senate. "They fail to address me from time to time as Madame President when I am presiding over the Senate, and they refer to me as Mr. President. I just think it's really silly. So I respond and say, 'Madame Senator, what can I do for you?'" said Ridgeway, a redhead with a southern flair.


Over the years, there have been times that women have united to push their perspective.


The most obvious issue involving gender actually divided women -- the Equal Rights Amendment.  It split women in the legislature with former Rep. Susan Shear, D-St. Louis County, sponsoring ratification and Sen. Mary Gant, D-Kansas City and the state Senate's first woman member, leading the opposition.


The first effort to unify women legislators came a few decades ago when women lawmakers formed a formal caucus in an effort to find common ground across the two parties. 


The caucus began after women House members discovered that a bill written by male legislators to toughen the state law against rape actually would allow a rapist to plead for a lesser charge. Bipartisan opposition by women legislators forced sponsors to rewrite the proposal.


A similar episode occurred this year when women spoke out during House debate against a bill that would decrease the minimum wage for jobs that get tips.


Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, described it as a gender issue. "This body may be 82 percent male, but the state of Missouri is not 82 percent male." She continued, "This bill, make no mistake, is an attack on Missouri's women and an attack on some of Missouri's most vulnerable women, some of Missouri's most vulnerable women who are taking care of some of Missouri's most vulnerable children."


Several women spoke up and this bill was defeated. Bringer said she credited that to the number of women who addressed the bill with honesty. "We all know it's about women. Let's call it what it is."


But not all women voted against the bill. Davis said she voted for the bill because "I don't like women playing the women card. I voted on the principle of the matter."


Today, many female legislators cited education and health as issues that were very important to them.


"Children, families and senior issues," said Columbia's Rep. Judy Baker about the issues that are important to women. "There are a lot of women's issues, and many of them have to do with poverty," Baker continued, citing poverty among women and pay discrepancies.


Others reject the idea that these are women's issues. "What is a women's issue?" asked Sen. Rita Days, D- St. Louis County. Some legislators said men care just as much about education and similar issues as do women.


Nearly all the women legislators interviewed agreed that women are very passionate about the issues they support. "If women feel passionate, they're more likely to take the risk of carrying the banner forward regardless of what political falling out may occur," Ridgeway said.


Rep. Shalonn Curls, D-Kansas City, said health, mental health and social services are most important to her and her constituents. "They affect my district more than other districts, and it affects me emotionally. It makes it different for me when you're fighting for something that people need most." She added, "I think that by nature women think with more emotion."


As for the smaller presence of women in the legislature, several women suggested that fundraising was a problem. 


"Women don't like to ask for money," Days said.


"In some instances it was more difficult for women to be successful fundraisers," Ridgeway said. "But with more and more women on a regular basis in higher areas of authority in business, I believe that becomes less true."


Baker, seeking the Democratic nomination for the 9th Congressional District, said that contributors give women lower quantities than they do men. One way that candidates break down their fundraising data is average donation per contributor. "My average is at $253 per contributor right now, and that number is higher for my male opponents."


Could it be the way women campaign that bring fewer of them to the Capitol? "Women campaign differently, but not in an inferior way," Coleman said. "Women can be more personable. Constituents feel women are more approachable."


But fundraising is not the only thing keeping women from the legislature.


For many women, it has been challenging to juggle family life and legislative responsibilities. "I'm very fortunate to have a very supportive husband, two boys who are totally grown who are together and self-sufficient," Cunningham said.


For some women, having small children can make it very difficult. "It was awful, " said Davis, who gave birth to a son during her first term in the House in 2003.


During her pregnancy she said she was teased by a male representative, who would constantly mock her during her pregnancy by saying that he would take her out back and deliver the baby for $75 like an animal in a barn. Although she said she understands it was a joke, she said she didn't think it was funny.


Davis said that she had hoped the baby could hold off until after the legislative session was over, but her doctor said it wasn't possible. Because she did not want to miss out on voting, she scheduled a C-section so that she would only miss five legislative days.


She said she feared that her newborn wouldn't recognize her as a mother, so she brought him to the Capitol with her. She said that he would take naps on the couch, until she felt he was old enough to stay at home without her. "My husband doesn't appreciate the Mr. Mom jokes," Davis said.


"I would not have run for office if we had had children," said Ridgeway. "This job is no fun for men or women who have children at home."


"Really, I'm a mom first," said Rep. Curls, who said she and her children have designated one day per weekend that is just for them. She will text her children during session because phones can't be used on the floor.


Baker contributed part of her success to a very supportive husband. "A strong marriage, with strong equalities within it, will allow women more choices," Baker said.


Sen. Harry Kennedy, D- St. Louis, noted that although men can just as easily take care of children, society has been socialized to view this as a woman's role. "Sometimes you get into a pattern or a rut, and I think that that's happened," Kennedy said. 


"Women are traditionally strapped with responsibilities men aren't," Jacob said. "Society has not evolved to the point where women have the same rights and opportunities as men do."


Children or not, home can still be a woman's responsibility. "Single or married, when you're elected, home is still the responsibility. I got to make sure there's oil in the car and that the bills are paid," said Coleman, who has been living single since 1986.


Coleman said that the male legislators often rely on a wife at home to keep things running. "You've got the responsibility the men don't have," Coleman said. Currently, more women than men in the Senate are single.


The numbers don't affect Ridgeway, who said she feels like a lone woman since her days in law school. "I'm used to being in the minority," she said.


Nearly all legislators interviewed did not describe themselves as a feminist, but wanted to see that advancement of women.


"Equal rights, equal pay, equal standing," said Baker. "I would work and devote my life to that."