Missouri’s women senators unite for literacy

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Jill Schupp is one of the 36 women who have served in the Missouri Senate. All 36 of the women who served, or their families, participated in writing the stories for a new book, “You Can, Too! Journey to the Missouri Senate: 36 Women Senators Share Their Stories.”

JILL SCHUPP

The Eleven. 

That’s the shorthand name I’ve given to the bipartisan group of women who currently serve in Missouri’s senate. Eleven is an historic number. 

It is more women serving together in the upper chamber than ever before in Missouri’s history. For perspective, there are a total of 34 senators each session. And throughout Missouri’s 200 years, 36 women in total have served in our senate. Only 36. 

And while it is true women have only been able to vote for about half that time, there is no semblance of proportionality when you consider that 1,118 men have served as state senators. 

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So when a Capitol regular who works well with both sides of the aisle let us know that one of our department heads was offering to let us, the senate women, use her husband’s “man cave” for a relaxing evening of agenda-free home-cooked dinner and down time this past March, many of us thought that sounded novel and welcome. 

Food and beverages were plentiful, and the setting was so welcoming. We talked and laughed, enjoying the informality and each other’s company. The topic of our heretofore unmatched number of 11 senate women during the state’s bicentennial year led to a conversation about doing something positive together that would benefit the people of Missouri. 

As each of us chimed in with ideas, the energy was palpable, and we were practically (or maybe actually) jumping out of our seats with excitement. 

Two of us will have served together for 14 years after this session — three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. Over these years of matching roles and shared chambers, we knew and respected each other, but didn’t really work together, didn’t really personally connect. 

That evening marked the beginning of change. The topic the group enthusiastically chose was “literacy.” This decision proved to be a critical one, borne out by the numbers. According to a Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education report in 2019, less than half of our students scored at or above grade level in reading.

We want every Missouri child to read on grade level by the end of third grade. It will change young lives for the better. It will open doors of opportunity throughout a lifetime.

That evening, our bi-partisan group decided on a three-pronged program. Exploring, studying and researching best practices will result in our plan or policy to move Missourians to literacy. This is the first of our three-prong program. We are still learning, planning and working. 

The second prong was the idea of my longtime Republican counterpart, Sen. Jeanie Riddle. She suggested we write a book about our journeys to the Senate to engage and involve both children and adults. Our different lives and lifestyles were evidence that serving as senators was not the result of some special demographic or magic formula. And just as we each became senators, our message to young people would be “You Can, Too!” 

Amazingly, our excitement has been generously supported. The book was completely underwritten by the Missouri Humanities Council, and Missouri Life printed and published the book. The second prong of our program is now complete. 

All 36 of the women who served, or their families, participated in writing the stories for the book. The book has a treasure hunt that starts on the back cover to get young readers engaged in searching through the book, and a “mirror” making the reader part of the story. 

Prong Three is about taking our message across the state. What if everyone in Missouri joins us in getting excited about reading, not just in the quiet of their living rooms or library, but publicly? What if we had communities coming together to talk about books? Barbers and hairdressers, restaurant workers, car dealers, people at churches, mosques and synagogues — what if they all had books for their visitors, especially the young ones, to enjoy? What if adults made a habit of bringing along a book when they were running errands or visiting others? What if our radio stations and newspapers and television stations devoted a little time to talking about a book to draw in the young ones alongside the adults in the room? What a special way to spend some intergenerational time exploring books. So the 11 of us plan to travel the state, meeting with leaders and community members who want to cheer on reading. 

Our project has helped us build new relationships, including with each other. During a legislative impasse that resulted in Gov. Mike Parson having to call a special legislative session this past September, with literally billions of federal dollars on the line, it was the women of the Senate who came together, agreed on a bipartisan solution and got the legislation passed. 

This year, we continue working together, whether it is co-sponsoring legislation or simply sitting down and having real conversations instead of just retreating to our corners. No doubt some of the most divisive issues will remain so, but our budding friendships and mutual respect have done what you, our constituents, always ask for us to do. We are talking. We are breaking bread and sharing ideas. We are looking for common ground. None of us will sacrifice our principles. But new ideas and understanding allow us to work more closely together for the greater good and the betterment of Missourians. 

And if our efforts are successful, we are hopeful they will have a lasting impact. Our focus is on helping children learn to read so they can read to learn. Literacy got us here. Join us in this effort to give kids the tools they need for their tomorrow. In so many ways, it can open up new worlds.

Jill Schupp is a Democratic member of the Missouri Senate, representing the 24th district consisting of the western suburbs of St. Louis.


Books can be purchased for $14.95 by visiting https://bit.ly/Missouri-Senate. If you work with young people, you may qualify for a copy donated by Missouri Humanities Council. Please reach out to [email protected]senate.mo.gov to make arrangements.