New book fosters literacy among kids
and bipartisanship in Missouri Senate

Fifty years after Mary Gant became the first woman elected to the Missouri Senate, a record number 11 women now occupy nearly one-third of the 34 seats in the Senate chamber. That history is the fulcrum of a new book, You Can, Too! Journey to the Missouri Senate, presented by Missouri Humanities Council and published by Missouri Life Media.

The book is about all 36 of Missouri’s past and present women senators, sharing their unique stories of their journeys to the Missouri Senate.

“There was no question about taking on this project, especially when we saw the interest—the passion—that the senators had for it,” says Greg Wood, publisher of Missouri Life magazine, which is published eight times a year with roughly 130,000 Missourians reading each issue. Greg says You Can, Too! “easily fit Missouri Life’s mission” of telling the stories about Missouri’s past, present, and future, while also enhancing literacy education and cultivating young readers.

You Can Too! book Production costs were 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 book is available for purchase for $14.99.

From the founding of our state 200 years ago, ordinary citizens from all walks of life have stepped forward to serve in Missouri’s General Assembly. A Senate news release notes that farmers, merchants, lawyers, community leaders and many other Missourians took time away from families and careers to represent their neighbors in the State Capitol. The news release adds: Despite their diverse backgrounds, one unifying character was true of these dedicated civil servants throughout much of our history. They were all male.

“You Can, Too!” is aimed at young readers and is intended to both encourage literacy and inspire girls to follow their passions and instill confidence so they can overcome hurdles and become their best selves.

“In the history of Missouri, there have been 1,118 male senators. There have only been 36 women,” says Sen. Jeanie Riddle, who represents six central-Missouri counties in the Senate. “We come from different backgrounds and experiences, but we have one thing in common. We are part of a sisterhood of state legislators. We hope our stories will inspire young readers and provide an example of the many opportunities that await them.”

The news release states that the inspiring life stories contained in the book are as diverse as the women themselves. There is Gwen Giles, the first African-American female in the Missouri Senate, and Jamilah Nasheed, who turned her life around after a troubled youth. Readers learn about four-term U.S. Rep. Pat Danner, who served in the Senate alongside her son, Steve Danner, making them the first mother and son to serve together in the same legislative body in America.

Children looking for an example of a blue-collar legislator will discover Gina Walsh, who worked in construction, installing pipe insulation before serving in the Senate, the news release states. Girls will cheer the accomplishments of Roseann Bentley, a former schoolteacher who was once dismissed by a male critic as a “meddling housewife” and told she shouldn’t run for office because she was a woman.

“We hope our stories will inspire young readers and provide an example of the many opportunities that await them.” Sen. Jeanie Riddle

“Our first goal with this project was to encourage children to read, but we also wanted to inspire young readers, especially girls, to aspire to great things,” says Sen. Jill Schupp. “We don’t expect every girl who reads this book will want to become a state senator, but we hope they’ll see there is a world of opportunities waiting for them.”

The Missouri Independent reported that the book 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 in December 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.

With a foreword from First Lady Teresa Parson and Second Lady Claudia Kehoe, the book also discusses how women earned the right to vote, and includes activities like a treasure hunt buried in the book’s pages.

“… Follow your dreams and your passion, whether that’s running for office, becoming a teacher or a parent, or a doctor or a nurse, whatever it is that you feel you want to do, you can do it.” Sen. Jill Schupp

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. Meanwhile, The Independent reported, women members have expressed hope that the bipartisanship they’ve fostered will continue throughout the upcoming session that begins next month.

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.

Read additional coverage about the release of “You Can, Too!” by The Missouri Times, in addition to a video produced by This Week in Missouri Politics.

Sen. Schupp told KJLU Radio that she hopes the book will be inspiring to young women and to all kids to say, “Look, don’t let your circumstances hold you back, follow your dreams and your passion, whether that’s running for office, becoming a teacher or a parent, or a doctor or a nurse, whatever it is that you feel you want to do, you can do it. Look what each of us have done to get to where we are.”

The initial publication of “You Can, Too!” was 10,000 copies, with most of them headed to fourth-grade classrooms across the state, doctor’s offices, libraries, and other places where young people can read them.