From the founding of our state 200 years ago, ordinary citizens from all walks of life have stepped forward to serve in Missouri’s General Assembly. Farmers, merchants, lawyers, community leaders and many other Missourians took time away from families and careers to represent their neighbors in the State Capitol. Despite their diverse backgrounds, one unifying character was true of these dedicated civil servants throughout much of our history. They were all male.
Women first served in Missouri’s General Assembly in 1923, shortly following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which established a woman’s right to vote in the United States. That year, two females were seated in the House of Representatives. Missouri’s first woman state senator was elected in 1972. Today, Missouri’s 34-member Senate is nearly one-third female, with 11 women currently serving, the largest number in the chamber’s history.
In 2021, those 11 female senators came together to leave a lasting, positive legacy in Missouri. Driven by a desire that all Missouri children can read, they produced a book recalling all 36 women who have served in the State Senate. Titled “You Can, Too!” the book is aimed at young readers and is intended to both encourage literacy and inspire girls to follow their passions and instill confidence so they can overcome hurdles and become their best selves.
“In the history of Missouri, there have been 1,118 male senators. There have only been 36 women,” said Sen. Jeanie Riddle, who represents six central-Missouri counties in the Senate. “We come from different backgrounds and experiences, but we have one thing in common. We are part of a sisterhood of state legislators. We hope our stories will inspire young readers and provide an example of the many opportunities that await them.”
The book features profiles of every past and present female Missouri senator and describes each woman’s path to elected office. Copies of the book will be provided to fourth grade classrooms throughout Missouri, and will also be sent to libraries, pediatricians’ offices and other places where young readers are likely to read.
The inspiring life stories contained in the book are as diverse as the women themselves. There is Gwen Giles, the first African-American female in the Missouri Senate, and Jamilah Nasheed, who turned her life around after a troubled youth. Readers learn about four-term U.S. Rep. Pat Danner, who served in the Senate alongside her son, Steve Danner, making them the first mother and son to serve together in the same legislative body in America. Children looking for an example of a blue-collar legislator will discover Gina Walsh, who worked in construction, installing pipe insulation before serving in the Senate. Girls will cheer the accomplishments of Roseann Bentley, a former school teacher who was once dismissed by a male critic as a “meddling housewife” and told she shouldn’t run for office because she was a woman.
As the 2022 legislative session got underway, Sen. Riddle hosted a reception in her Capitol office to roll out the book and to celebrate its publication with her Senate sisters – currently serving female legislators, as well as eight surviving trailblazers. Among the former senators in attendance was Mary Gant (now Newquist), the first woman to serve in Missouri’s upper chamber. A three-term member of the House of Representatives prior to serving in the Senate, Gant Newquist insists she was always treated with deference and respect. While she gladly accepted a coveted parking space in the Capitol basement, she did not believe she was treated differently inside the Senate chamber. “I never saw a difference between men and women,” Gant said. “I believed we were more alike than different, based on the issues. We didn’t always agree, but it wasn’t because of our gender.”
As former senators arrived at the reception, old colleagues greeted each other and currently serving senators embraced the women who inspired them. For many, it was the first time they met, but all shared a common bond that they hope will inspire a new generation of young women.
“Our first goal with this project was to encourage children to read, but we also wanted to inspire young readers, especially girls, to aspire to great things,” said Sen. Jill Schupp. “We don’t expect every girl who reads this book will want to become a state senator, but we hope they’ll see there is a world of opportunities waiting for them.”
There was a palatable sense of pride and fellowship as the women gathered in Sen. Riddle’s office and autographed each other’s copies of “You Can, Too!,” while the governor and lieutenant governor visited with the guests of honor. Throughout the event, Missouri’s first female senator posed for photos and spoke with women lawmakers who paused to pay their respects. “I am so impressed by the quality of these ladies. They are awesome,” Gant Newquist said. “I’m proud to be part of this group.”
For information about ordering “You Can, Too!” contact the office of your Missouri state senator.