If you knew Susie…Sue Shear, that is!

Then-Missouri Rep. Sue Shear addresses women visiting the Capitol in Jefferson City during a Jewish Federation Women’s Division trip in April 1982. File photo: David M. Henschel

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Some Missouri voters too young to remember the sterling career of Sue Shear, the longest serving woman in the history of the Missouri House of Representatives and a passionate advocate for women’s rights, may not have understood the ham-fisted attempt by ultra-conservative members of that very House to kill the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life.

An article by Rudi Keller in the May 16 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune, reports that the Institute “survived another attempt to kill it yesterday when a House-Senate conference committee rejected a House-passed amendment that would have banned the University of Missouri-St. Louis program.”

The institute named for Shear provides training for women who want to be in politics and government and tracks their success in achieving positions of authority. It has come under assault from some Republicans who accuse it of partisanship in favor of Democrats and liberals.”

Keller quotes Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensberg, one of the wiser heads in his party in Jefferson City as saying, “We have spoken pretty clearly. We are going to keep the Sue Shear Institute.”

There can be no doubt that Shear, of blessed memory, was both a strong Democrat and a liberal. But her long and distinguished career was one of the very kind of civility and bi-partisanship that has been sorely lacking in current political discourse at the local, state and national levels.

Shear, who died of cancer in her Clayton home at the age of 80 on Nov. l5, 1998, was first elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1972, taking office in Jan. 1973. Her 26 years in the Missouri House set an all-time record for length of tenure among women members of either House of the Missouri General Assembly—a record that is likely to continue unless the current term limits law is repealed. When Shear was first elected to the legislature, the story in the Jewish Light was headlined, “A Woman’s Place is in the House.”

In her obituary in the Light on Nov. 18, 1998, Shear was described as “a petite woman known for her engaging manner and high energy,” and noted that she had been planning to retire in 1998, prior to being diagnosed with colon cancer a year ago. While undergoing chemotherapy, she continued to travel to Jefferson City until mid-April to cast votes in support of her major concerns, including funding for higher education, handgun safety, mental illness, protections for children and the elderly and women’s reproductive rights.”

One of the first bills Shear introduced after she took office in 1973 was a resolution to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had already been ratified by 25 states. The failure to obtain final passage of the ERA ratification bill was one of Shear’s biggest disappointments in her more than two-decade career in the House.

In May of 1998, the Missouri House passed a resolution creating the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the UMSL, which was also approved by the university’s Board of Curators. Vivian Eveloff, one of the many women in public life to be mentored and inspired by Shear, was named the first Director of the Institute, which she described as “the first public university-based public policy program in the country named for a woman elected official. The Institute will work to provide mentoring which Sue so generously offered to the many women in government whose lives she touched.”

When Shear took office, she was one of only 10 women serving in the General Assembly. When she retired 26 years later, the number of women legislators had grown to 40.

Shear, herself, benefitted from the energies of the Women’s Political Caucus, which had been formed in 1971, and which drafted her as its first candidate in 1972. Among the early leaders of the Women’s Political Caucus was the late Harriet Woods, who was the first Jewish woman to be elected Lieutenant Governor of Missouri. As an illustration of her lifetime dedication to the democratic process, Shear managed to go to the polls and vote on Nov. 3, 1998, just two weeks before her passing.

Shear, a native of Glen Carbon, Ill., was a proud graduate of University City High School and Washington University, and had been married for 57 years to the late Harry Shear, who died in 1994.

At her funeral service and celebration of her life at Temple Emanuel, at the conclusion of the eulogies, a piano player played “If You Knew Susie” as her casket was been wheeled out of the sanctuary. That sweet moment brought tears and smiles to the many admirers of Sue Shear.

The very idea that the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life, which has mentored both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives would even be considered for elimination is an affront to any one of us who really “Knew Susie—Oh, Oh, What a Gal!”

Just ask folks like Vivian Eveloff, Jill Schupp, Susan Carlson, Rachel Storch, Stacey Newman and countless others—they will show you by the example of their public service, that the legacy of Sue Shear is alive and well.