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Freshmen to Watch: Barbara Phifer

The Missouri Times is speaking to new lawmakers this session. Get to know more of the “Freshmen to Watch” here.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After more than 40 years as a United Methodist pastor, Barbara Phifer was considering retirement. But as her concerns of what she saw as threats to democracy grew, she knew her work wasn’t quite done. 

Phifer, who received her master’s of divinity from the St. Paul School of Theology, is one of the first women to serve as a pastor in Missouri. She’s served in churches in Missouri as well as in Montevideo, Uruguay during the 1980s where she had a firsthand account of the country’s transition from a dictatorship back to democracy. 

That experience, she said, just underscored her unease about the end of the Trump administration. She worried about an attempted coup. And then on Jan. 6, as Phifer was being sworn into the Missouri Legislature along with her fellow freshmen class, a mob of the former president’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol

To Phifer, the insurrection was confirmation that she was doing the right thing by jumping into politics. 

“Every single one of us has more influence than we think that we do. Every single one of us has the capacity to make a difference more than we think we can do,” Phifer said. “It’s something I’ve preached for years, and I decided I need to take that and do it in a new way in retirement.”

Phifer beat her Republican opponent by more than 3,000 votes to represent HD 90 in St. Louis County in November’s elections. And like her predecessor, Rep. Deb Lavender, Phifer has brought a strong passion for standing up for vulnerable populations and a nearly outmatched level of preparation for what’s being debated in the statehouse. 

In particular, Phifer said she is concerned about how Missouri values trans children and their families, specifically pointing to House legislation barring transgender children from participating in girls’ sports.

During an interview with The Missouri Times, Phifer ruffled through some papers on her desk where she found a printed out copy of the Missouri State High School Activities Association’s mission statement. She had notes about the economic impact of HB 33 scribbled in the margins of the document but also had highlighted the mission statement, noting that it did not mention winning competitions as part of its goal. 

“If we’re going to promote the values of democracy and cooperation, we don’t need to be excluding people,” Phifer said. 

Phifer filed one bill during her first year to reduce the tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers. She sits on the Higher Education, Public Safety, and Rules – Administrative Oversight committees. 

As for her legacy, Phifer said she’s glad there will be a written record of what she stood for as a legislator. 

“We don’t always understand each others’ lives,” Phifer said. “It is really important to listen and to respect what people say that their life experience is even if you disagree. I’m disappointed by what it seems to me is the reluctance of many people to actually listen and see the validity of different points of view, especially when it comes to lived experiences.” 

Phifer grew up in Washington, D.C., where — especially with her father working for the Department of Agriculture — it was easy to get swept up in the political atmosphere of the nation’s capital. But when she was a teenager, Phifer came back to Missouri, graduating from David H. Hickman High School in Columbia. 

Phifer and her husband, Thomas Sanders, live in Kirkwood. She is the proud parent of five children — all of them who encouraged her to run for office in the first place — and grandmother to seven grandchildren.