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Capitol Perspectives: Missouri’s Legislature and Women

Phill Brooks
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The decision of the Republican House speaker to place a bust of Rush Limbaugh in the third floor Capitol rotunda reminded me of how much the role of women in Missouri’s legislature and the Republican party has evolved over the years.

It was a few decades ago that a Republican governor, Kit Bond championed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The addition to the U.S. Constitution would have prohibited discrimination based on gender. It became a central issue for many female legislators.

Bond fought a passionate, but unsuccessful, campaign for the ERA. Ratification faced tough opposition in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

The Republican governor’s promotion of women’s issues went beyond the ERA. He brought women into top administrative positions at a higher number than in the past.

A few years later, it was a Republican legislator, St. Louis County Rep. Jack Buechner, who was instrumental in the creation of the legislature’s Women’s Caucus that became a bi-partisan group of female lawmakers that sought to find common ground.

Buechner became a player in this issue when he fought an effort by prosecutors to weaken the state’s rape law. That bill was promoted as a measure to get tough on rapists with longer sentences. It was moving along to easy passage, until Jack Buechner read the bill.

Buechner, a lawyer, discovered that the bill also would make it easier for prosecutors to plea bargain with defendants for lesser offenses that were not related to sex crimes. Plea bargains are attractive to prosecutors because they don’t require time-consuming, costly trials with the risk of a not-guilty verdict.

Buechner rose on the House floor the evening that a final vote was to be taken on the bill. It was supposed to be a routine vote with overwhelming support — routine, that is, until Buechner began talking, pointing out that the real impact of the bill would let rapists avoid rape convictions.

It took a long time for Buechner to get his point across. But as he talked, I watched over the House from the press gallery as small groups of female legislators began to huddle together on the House floor and conferred about the points Buechner was making.

When some of those female legislators, concluding Buechner was correct, began voicing their own opposition, the game was over. There was no way a male-dominated legislature could pass a bill on rape with opposition by female legislators from both sides of the aisle. It would have been political suicide.

It was the women, working together, that forced legislative leaders to rewrite the bill to address Buechner’s points.

From that night and from that success, women legislators seemed to have discovered that they had enormous legislative clout when they worked together. That led to creation of the Women’s Caucus.

One intriguing consequence of the Women’s Caucus involved the Equal Rights Amendment that had divided women legislators deeply. The late Rep. Sue Shear, D-St. Louis County, was the leader in the ratification efforts. But the leading opponent was also a woman Democrat — Missouri’s first female senator, Mary Gant from Kansas City.

Realizing the success they achieved when united, the female legislators concentrated on issues upon which women legislators could agree — like blatantly sexist provisions in Missouri law.

The final year for ratification, there was not even an serious effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Missouri. A contributing factor was that some women were frustrated that the ERA had detracted from recognition of their efforts in other areas.

Today, I sense that spirit of bi-partisan unity among women legislators I saw decades ago is long gone.

Decades ago if a legislative leader had announced plans to create a permanent symbol of honor in the Capitol for a person who used sexual epithets to publicly attack a female college student spoke out on an issue that affected women, I have no doubt that women legislators of the majority party would have spoken out – legislators like Shear and the late Sen. Harriet Woods.

Also long gone is the Women’s Caucus. But you can still see today the legislative legacy of their efforts — not just in the statutes, but in the legislative process itself.

Whenever legislative staff are asked to draft a bill covering a law that contains a male-specific pronoun like “he,” the drafted bill often will include language to change that pronoun to a non-gender specific term.

It is, in a way, an echo of an earlier period.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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