JEFFERSON CITY - With a record number of women on Missouri’s statewide ballot and at least one campaign trying to capitalize on the growing appeal of female candidates, 2004 may go down as the year of the woman in Missouri politics.
When Harriett Woods was elected lieutenant governor in 1984, she became the first woman to win a statewide office in Missouri. Two decades later, more women are on the statewide ballot than at any time in Missouri’s history. There is at least one woman running for every statewide office except attorney general.
Woods said a woman running for political office is not the big news it was when she ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982.
“At that time it was big news, and my gender was a big part of the coverage, and there were a sizable number of people who would not vote for women in a power position,” Woods said.
Joyce Mushaben agrees that women’s trouble getting elected is a thing of the past.
“I’m perturbed that people are still asking the question, ‘Can women be elected?’” said Mushaben, director of the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The studies show that issue was over 10 years ago.”
Woods said women can not only be elected but in some cases are also preferred over men.
“It’s very satisfying today to see voters in the vast majority prefer sometimes electing a woman for her accountability and outsider’s status,” Woods said.
Bekki Cook, former secretary of state and now the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, agrees that women are often viewed as agents of change.
“I think this is a good year for women to be running,” Cook said. “I think that people are receptive to change, and certainly we represent quite a bit of change.”
The trend toward more female candidates has not gone unnoticed by campaign analysts. MU political science professor Rick Hardy said Claire McCaskill’s gubernatorial campaign is emphasizing her gender on posters. McCaskill’s election sign says “Claire” in large letters and puts McCaskill in smaller letters.
“It’s a very significant move on her part,” Hardy said. “It says ‘woman,’ then ‘Democrat’ — that’s a very important strategy.”
Woods, however, said women are not running on the basis of gender; they are qualified candidates who happen to be women and will win or lose based on their qualifications.
Catherine Hanaway, speaker of the Missouri House and the Republican candidate for secretary of state, agrees.
“We’ve gotten to the point where people can vote entirely on the merits of the candidates’ ideas; that there are enough women running now that gender really shouldn’t be an issue,” said Hanaway, who is running against another woman, Democratic candidate Robin Carnahan.
Woods said women have gradually gained political power in Missouri.
“This is the culmination of the road to success rather than a sudden breakthrough,” she said.
That road to success began two decades ago when Margaret Kelly became the first woman in Missouri to hold statewide office. She was appointed state auditor after Jim Antonio resigned in 1984.
It was less than four months later that Woods won her campaign for lieutenant governor—becoming the first woman elected to statewide office in Missouri.
Since then, five women have held statewide office. Three of those are on the statewide ballot this year—McCaskill, Cook and State Treasurer Nancy Farmer, a Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Kit Bond for the U.S. Senate. Farmer won the treasurer’s job in 2001.
The fifth woman to hold statewide office was Judy Moriarty, who was elected secretary of state in 1992. Cook was appointed to that job after Moriarty was impeached and removed from office in 1994.
Missouri has yet to elect a female governor, attorney general or U.S. senator, though Jean Carnahan served in the U.S. Senate in place of her husband, Mel Carnahan, who was elected posthumously.
Hardy said term limits have helped women succeed in Missouri politics. Hanaway agrees, saying term limits create opportunities for more people to serve.
In 1992, Hardy helped lead the fight for term limits. He argued that one of the benefits would be greater opportunity for women. More than a decade later, Hardy’s argument is playing itself out.
At a news conference at the Sanford-Kimpton Health Facility on Tuesday, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards said that Missouri’s crop of female candidates is encouraging but that prospective female candidates still face a tougher road than their male counterparts.
“We have to work harder,” Richards said. “We have to prove ourselves more or we can’t get people to support us.”
Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-St. Louis County, said it’s healthy for men and women to work together as politicians make decisions that affect us all. Fraser is state director for Women in Government.
“Gender balance is a goal that we should be striving for,” Fraser said. “But on the other hand, not just for the sake of gender balance but in fact to have capable, competent, talented people make up that balance.”
Many agreed that in this election the issues will be more important than the candidates’ gender. Hardy said that’s the way it should be.
“Where we reach equality is when people vote for issues and experience rather than gender,” Hardy said. “And that’s what we’ll see.”
— Missourian reporter Ben Welsh contributed to this report.