JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Women still make up only about a quarter of Missouri lawmakers despite gains in what was nationally a record-setting election for female candidates.
The percentage of female Missouri lawmakers ticked up from 22.8 percent last year to 25.4 percent this session, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
That’s below the national rate of 28.6 percent of state legislative seats and significantly below women’s percentage of the general population, which is a little over half of all people nationally. Compared to the percentage of women in other state legislatures, Missouri ranks 33rd.
State Rep. Jean Evans said the increase in women this year was so small — just five more are serving — that “I don’t know if it has a significant difference.”
“Until we get to a Legislature that reflects the population of the state, which is more like fifty-fifty, there’s always room for improvement,” said Evans, a Republican from the St. Louis suburb of Manchester. “So I’m glad to see an increase, but I would love to see more.”
Part of the challenge is getting more women to run for office, Evans and other female lawmakers said.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh said with the pay at about $36,000 a year, “you’re asking them to make a big sacrifice.”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade recruited Democratic candidates to run last November and said men often jumped at the opportunity when asked. But she said women were hesitant and “often taken aback that I would even consider them, even though they were just as qualified as the other men I may have been speaking to.”
“When women finally say ‘yes’ and they run, they win,” Quade said. “It’s just getting them to actually believe that they have the skillset and are ready.”
Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Kansas City-based Women’s Foundation, said support from political leaders is key, and traditionally men have been at the top of the ticket. No woman has ever served as Missouri’s Senate president pro tem, and only one woman —Republican Catherine Hanaway — has ever served as House speaker.
But nationally, Missouri is one of just seven states where women — Quade and Walsh — hold at least two of the four top-ranking leadership spots, according to a review by The Associated Press. Walsh said she’s “really thrilled” when more women are elected.
Data compiled by Walsh’s office show more women are heading committees and serving in other lower-level legislative leadership positions this session than any other dating back to 2003.
“If we don’t have a seat at the table, we’re going to bring our own chair,” Senate Minority Caucus Whip Jamilah Nasheed said. “That’s the mentality of the women in the Capitol now.”
Still, men occupy all but one of Missouri’s statewide elected offices and head both the state House and Senate.
“If they can be the champion for women to break through those barriers,” Doyle said, “that would be helpful.”
Evans said it was Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who previously served as a state senator and then treasurer, who finally persuaded her to run for office. She said once she jumped in, Republican U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner — one of the leading female elected officials in the state — mentored her.
Now Evans said it’s her responsibility to reach out to other women and girls. When she visits schools in her district, Evans reads “Grace for President,” a book about a little girl so mad that there’s never been a female U.S. president that she runs to be her class president.
“It helps that for many of these kids,” Evans said, “the first politician they ever meet is a woman.”