Republican Sen. Jeanie Riddle (left) and Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp (photos courtesy of Senate Communications).
The women of the Missouri Senate are telling their own stories through a forthcoming children’s book that chronicles the journeys of lawmakers past and present.
Titled, “You Can, Too!,” the book recounts the stories of the 36 women who have served in the state Senate over the course of the chamber’s history. The book is the product of a bipartisan effort of Missouri’s women senators to improve literacy rates across the state.
In a chamber that’s been increasingly wrought by tension and infighting, the group of 11 senators also hopes it can be a testament to the type of collaboration that’s possible across party lines.
We’re “showing kids that no matter your background and where you’ve come from, that you can find your dreams and reach your dreams,” Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said. “Each one of us became members of the Senate. And each one of us came from very different backgrounds and experiences.”
The idea was first raised over dinner the women senators had together earlier this year where they bounced off ideas on how to work together. It’s also the most recent example of how the group has forged relationships and fostered collaboration.
They call themselves “The Eleven.”
The name, signed onto a letter sent this month to senators about requesting copies of the book, is in reference to the historic number of eleven women serving in the Missouri Senate at once — in a chamber where the first woman served nearly 50 years ago.
It’s reminiscent of collaboration fostered by an informal education working group and of women senators forging a path forward for the renewal of an essential tax on hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies, known as the federal reimbursement allowance (FRA), earlier this year during a special session.
The Senate was deadlocked over a fight between a group of Republicans who wanted to include a ban on public funding for Planned Parenthood and certain contraceptives in the FRA and others who wanted to pass it without those provisions. The impasse was broken when the bipartisan group of women decided to intervene.
“The women of the Senate consider that night historic,” said Sen. Elaine Gannon, R-De Soto, on the FRA’s renewal. She later added: “We came to a consensus on what we thought was the right thing to do. And that’s how we voted. And it felt good.”
Books to be distributed across the state
With a foreword from First Lady Teresa Parson and Second Lady Claudia Kehoe, the book features short stories on how each woman made their way to the Senate, from Sen. Jeanie Riddle’s experience with spinal meningitis as a young girl that inspired her to make the most of life to the impression Sunday school left on Schupp and her desire to help ensure others don’t go hungry.
“With many of us it was never on our bucket list,” Riddle, a Callaway County Republican, said of serving in the Senate. “But just the footsteps that we took that got us here.”
The book also discusses how women earned the right to vote, and includes activities like a treasure hunt buried in the book’s pages.
Roughly 10,000 copies will be printed by the magazine and publishing company Missouri Life, with production costs being paid for by the Missouri Humanities Council, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities that aims to build “a more thoughtful, informed, and civil society.”
The goal is to have books distributed to fourth grade classrooms across the state, in addition to libraries, pediatricians’ offices and any other place where kids may read.
“Everybody saw the importance of our young children learning to read, and also (were) aware of the fact that there are also children, especially through this pandemic, that have not had the opportunity to have access to books at home,” Gannon said.
As the youngest of 11 children, Gannon discovered her love of reading in the classroom and as an adult always had a book in hand whenever she had a spare moment. Gannon and Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, both said they’re looking forward to getting to return to the classroom and hand out copies of the books to students.
“I hope that it’s well received in its intended purpose to promote literacy, but also we know that representation matters and to show girls and women across the state that they have a place in the legislature,” Arthur said. “And we need them to run.”
The senators hope to travel to each other’s districts to distribute the book, and plan to brainstorm potential legislation they could propose on the topic of literacy. On the first day of the upcoming session, Riddle has invited surviving senators to come to the Capitol to celebrate the book’s launch and for them to receive their copies.
“My hope is years down the road,” Riddle said, “they’ll do a volume two of the females that serve.”
‘It’s not personal or petty’
Schupp and Riddle, the longest-serving women in the Senate, gathered their fellow senators in Riddle’s office where lawmakers said they were able to have a frank, open discussion about where lawmakers’ discomfort lied with the potential consequences of proposals to ban Planned Parenthood as a Medicaid provider and to limit taxpayer dollars from funding certain forms of contraceptives — proposals that would most impact women.
Schupp said she’s proud of how the women came together to renew the FRA tax without the provisions.
“I don’t think it would have happened in quite that way, or maybe not at all,” Schupp said, “…but for the fact that the women legislators had been working so closely together.”
Lawmakers said their efforts to get to know each other — beyond their political affiliations — have made a difference and contributed to friendships and a mutual respect the women hold for each other. While they may not agree on every issue, it’s given them an opportunity to open the door to have deeper conversations on their views.
Gannon said it’s been one of the “bright spots” of working on the book together.
Schupp said as Democratic member of a GOP-dominated legislature, she “may not win, but at least I’ll know that I’ve been able to make my case and that somebody has tried to hear my perspective. And sometimes that’s the best we can do. I hope we can go beyond that, but just knowing we can have that starting place is phenomenal.”
Tensions are still high after the legislative session, in which both Republican and Democratic senators felt promises had been broken. Last week, a meeting among Republican senators excluded members of the conservative caucus, reigniting the Republican factional infighting that has marked the chamber over the last year.
But women members have expressed hope that the bipartisanship they’ve fostered will continue throughout the upcoming session that begins next month.
“I feel like ‘The Eleven’ offer the best hope for getting things done and working together,” Arthur said, later adding: “It’s going to be a very contentious start to the session, and I think the difference is that with the women, it’s not personal or petty. We’ll try to remain focused on the policy at hand and getting things done.”
With hundreds of bills prefiled and the chances of passage slim for many, Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin wrote in a Facebook post earlier this month that she predicted “the women of the senate will play a big part if anything is to get done.”
“We can all sit in the same room and talk like adults. And laugh and work it out if there’s any common ground at all,” she wrote. “I like all my colleagues but the women do add a special touch I think.”
Riddle said the sense of bipartisan collaboration has always existed in her time in the legislature, and it’s become more pronounced with more women serving.
When Riddle was first elected to the Missouri Senate in 2014, she was the only Republican woman serving in the chamber. She said she became fast friends with Democratic women whose desks were near hers on the Senate floor.
“For me, it’s been that way all along, just because there were good people serving when I came in,” Riddle said, “and there’s still good people serving when I leave.”
Schupp and Riddle have served their entire 13 years together in the House and Senate, both getting elected to each chamber the same year. Now in their final year in the legislature due to term limits, getting to memorialize the accomplishments of the women who have come before them was especially meaningful, they said.
“It will be a memory she and I will share for the rest of our lives,” Schupp said of working with Riddle to bring the book to fruition. “And it will be one that I share with ‘The Eleven.’ And even with the 36.”
The book ends on a page that represents a mirror — and like the title imparts — let kids reading know that: you can, too.
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