JEFFERSON CITY - With a record number of women on Missouri's statewide ballot and at least one campaign trying to capitalize on the growing appeal of female candidates, 2004 may go down as the year of the woman in Missouri politics.
When Harriett Woods was elected lieutenant governor in 1984 she became the first woman to win statewide office in Missouri.
Now, two decades later, more women are on the statewide ballot than at anytime in Missouri's history.
Woods said a woman running for political office is not the big news it was when she ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982.
"At that time, it was big news and my gender was a big part of the coverage and there were a sizable number of people who would not vote for women in a power position," Woods said.
Joyce Mushaben agrees that women having trouble getting elected is a thing of the past.
"I'm perturbed that people are still asking the question,'can women be elected?'" said Mushaben, Director of the Institute for Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "The studies show that issue was over ten years ago."
Woods said women cannot only be elected, but in some cases they are the preferred choice.
"It's very satisfying today to see voters in the vast majority prefer sometimes electing a woman for her accountability and outsider's status," Woods said.
Bekki Cook, former secretary of state and now the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, agrees that women are often viewed as change agents.
"I think this is a good year for women to be running," said Cook. "I think that people are receptive to change and certainly we represent quite a bit of change."
This has not gone unnoticed by some campaign strategists. Rick Hardy, political science professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, said the McCaskill campaign is emphasizing the gender of their candidate on their posters. McCaskill's election sign says "Claire" in large letters and puts McCaskill in smaller letters.
"It's a very significant move on her part, it says 'woman,' then 'Democrat'--that's a very important strategy," Hardy said.
However, Woods said women are not running on the basis of gender; they are qualified candidates who happen to be women and will win or lose based on their qualifications.
Republican House speaker and now candidate for secretary of state, Catherine Hanaway agrees.
"We've gotten to the point where people can vote entirely on the merits of the candidates' ideas; that there are enough women running now that gender really shouldn't be an issue," Hanaway said.
According to Woods, women gaining power in Missouri politics has been a gradual process.
"This is the culmination of the road to success rather than a sudden breakthrough," Woods said.
That road to success began two decades ago when Margaret Kelly became the first woman in Missouri to hold statewide office. She was appointed to state auditor following the resignation of Jim Antonio in 1984.
It was less than four months later that Woods won her campaign for lieutenant governor -- becoming the first woman to be elected to a statewide office in Missouri.
Since then, five women have held statewide office. Three of those women are on the statewide ballot for this year -- McCaskill, Cook and State Treasurer Nancy Farmer who is the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Farmer, who is challenging Republican incumbent Kit Bond for U.S. Senate, was elected to the state treasurer's office in 2001.
The fifth woman to hold statewide is Judy Moriarty who was elected secretary of state in 1992. Cook was appointed to the job after Moriarty was impeached and removed from office in 1994.
Missouri has yet to elect a woman a governor, attorney general or to the U.S. Senate.
Hardy said one of the reasons women have been successful in Missouri politics is term limits. Hanaway agrees and said term limits create greater opportunities for a number of people.
In 1992, Hardy helped lead the fight for term limits. He argued that one of the benefits would be greater opportunity for women. More than a decade later, Hardy's argument is playing itself out in Missouri's politics.
Five out of the six statewide races have candidates who are women. Four of the five statewide office races are for open seats and they are the ones to watch, Hardy said.
The women candidates and their opponents for statewide office are:
* Gubernatorial candidate Claire McCaskill, who defeated incumbent Gov. Bob Holden to win the Democratic nomination, is running against Republican Matt Blunt.
* Democrat Bekki Cook, who defeated Ken Jacob, the state Senate minority leader in the primary, is running against Republican and president pro tem of the Senate Peter Kinder for lieutenant governor.
* Catherine Hanaway, the Republican speaker of the House, is running against Democrat and daughter of former Governor Mel Carnahan, Robin Carnahan for secretary of state.
* State Senator Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla, is running against Arnold's Mayor Mark Powell for state treasurer.
The only statewide office race that does not have a woman candidate is for attorney general where Democrat incumbent Jay Nixon is challenged by Republican Chris Byrd.
Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-St. Louis County, said it is really good for the country and the state to have both men and women working together to make decisions that effect all of us. Fraser is a state director for Women in Government.
"Gender balance is a goal that we should be striving for. But on the other hand, not just for the sake of gender balance but in fact to have capable competent talented people make up that balance," Fraser said.
Many agreed that in this election the issues will be more important than the candidates' gender. And, Hardy said, that's the way it should be.
"Where we reach equality is when people vote for issues and experience rather than gender," said Hardy. "And that's what we'll see."