JEFFERSON CITY — Bitter disagreements have plagued the state Senate this session, but there has been one exception: the women senators.
A record number of women serve in the Senate: 11. Last spring, the women — six Republicans and five Democrats — sat down together for a dinner. Each senator told the story of her path to the Senate. This sparked the idea to create a book with each of their stories to inspire young people to run for public office.
Working on the book “You Can, Too!” has prompted greater cooperation between the two parties on issues ranging from health care to a literacy campaign. During the recent filibuster over congressional redistricting, many of these women spoke out about the importance of relationships and compromise in the Senate.
“I think we need to do a whole lot more working together and a little less trying to get that headline, that news story, and winning the social media game of the day,” said Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston.
The book was created by the female senators to promote literacy in the state and as an example of people from different viewpoints working together.
Sens. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur and Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, led the group in crafting the book. A $68,850 grant from the Missouri Humanities Council paid for the publication. Missouri Life printed 10,000 copies for distribution across the state.
Schupp described the literacy campaign as a “three-pronged plan”: releasing of the book, consulting with experts to draft legislation improving Missouri’s literacy and traveling the state to promote the book and literacy programs.
“We know that if we can make sure all Missouri kids can read, it opens doors of opportunity for all of them,” Schupp said.
Multiple senators, from Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, to Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, have drafted legislation that could be combined in the literacy bill. Their ideas range from creating success plans for students to extending literacy education programs to fourth graders.
“It’s not the finished product,” said Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, “just the start. We can have a louder voice all together.”
The book features personal stories of how the women made their way to the state Capitol.
Eslinger’s family moved from town to town in her childhood until settling in southern Missouri. Eslinger pushed herself to earn multiple college degrees and become an educator.
She said the importance of each senator sharing her story is “to show that there’s not one way you get here, if that’s your goal.”
Arthur hopes the book will inspire more women to join the Senate. Before coming to the Capitol, she taught middle school students until deciding to run for a seat in the Missouri House. After serving four years in the House, Arthur won her Senate seat when she was 30. She is the youngest woman to be elected to the Missouri Senate.
“I remember when I was elected to the Missouri House, I was the only woman in her 20s serving, and I definitely felt lonely and like I didn’t have many peers,” Arthur said. “I was confused for an intern or a daughter, a sister, no one thought I was the representative. It’s really nice that we’ve gone from having positive work relationships to deep friendships. I know that all of these women are going to continue in my life long after I’m gone from here.”
Schupp echoed that sentiment, saying :”This is my 14th year in the legislature, and I feel like I’m closer to people on the other side of the aisle than I have ever been. It makes me excited about coming in to work with them.”
The friendships have allowed for more than just personal connections. The senators find working alongside one another easier now that they know and respect one another.
In addition to the literacy campaign, the female senators have already helped to pass the Federal Reimbursement Allowance, which funds much of the state’s Medicaid program. A stalemate over the FRA had overtaken a special legislative session.
“The women senators got together,” Schupp said, “decided what we wanted that bill to look like, we put it forward and we got that FRA passed in a clean way — with no strings attached.”
Sen. Elaine Gannon, R-De Soto, said: “We have formed friendships across the aisle. We’ve always known each other, but were we really friends before? There are some issues that we will never agree on totally, but we can respect one another’s opinion.”
This is Gannon’s 10th year serving in the legislature, but she was a teacher for 32 years before her election. Gannon recently collaborated with Schupp on a bill to expand Medicaid coverage for postpartum care, another bipartisan effort between the women.
The senators hope to distribute “You Can, Too!” to every fourth grade classroom and school library in the state, followed by school visits from the senators after the end of session in May.
And while the children’s book features the unique story of each senator’s path to the Senate, it also includes fun facts about the women. For example, Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, used to be a theater performer in New York City. Riddle has attended a gun-fighting school and can throw knives and hatchets. Sen. Barbara Washington’s, D-Kansas City, hobby is acrylic pour painting. O’Laughlin loves working with adopted basset hounds and Sen. Angela Mosley, D-Florissant, and her husband both serve in the Missouri legislature.
In addition to the 11 current women senators, the book profiles all the women who have served in the Senate, beginning with Mary Gant Newquist’s election in 1972.