Missouri women have recently gained traction in political representation, but these advances have still left Missouri women far from equal representation. In fact, over the past 20 years, Missouri women have accounted for only 20 percent of elected positions even though they represent 51 percent of the population. Missouri women deserve a far greater voice in the policymaking that impacts their lives, particularly at the local level.
Research demonstrates that Missouri women are poorly represented in larger municipal governments, and data show that when accounting for smaller local governments, women’s representation is even more bleak. When considering Black, Indigenous, and Latina women, there are even fewer. There is a significant opportunity to improve these numbers — especially at local government level — through local board and commission appointments. It is more important than ever to include women in political leadership for true representation.
Women account for only 17 percent of elected local and municipal government seats across Missouri. For local appointed boards and commissions, where information is available, women only account for 22 percent of available seats while representing 51 percent of the population. With respect to particular bodies, women account for 15 percent of board of adjustment seats and 19 percent of planning and zoning boards. These appointed boards address fundamental issues within communities, including infrastructure, land use, and public safety. Local boards make recommendations to elected officials based on their research and can draft regulations for the municipality to consider. The exact powers of the boards and commissions depend on your locality, but these are meaningful bodies that have a significant role in our communities. The lack of women serving means that key voices are missing from important decisions that affect all of us.
Thankfully, several organizations across Missouri are working with women seeking political leadership opportunities. For example, Missouri M.A.D.E. and WEPOWER collaborate with women’s interest groups to promote opportunities and provide development for those seeking political leadership. Through the national organization ReflectUS, these organizations are able to coalesce their resources to connect with a significant number of women from all parts of Missouri. To date, they have trained hundreds of Missouri women who are ready and willing to take on political leadership roles. Now, local governments need to take action to increase the number of women serving on local boards and commissions.
Many boards and commissions have standards regarding the qualifications of who can serve. Appointees may have to be licensed professionals in a particular field or work in a certain industry to be appointed. Some have political party requirements, like the Missouri Conservation Commission, which allows no more than two members from the same political party to serve. In some cases, there are geographic requirements for serving on boards and commissions, such as requiring at least one person from each congressional district to be appointed. These requirements are striving for the same kinds of outcomes that we propose. Diversity — whether professional, ideological, racial, geographical, or otherwise — has long been recognized as valuable to including the voices of those who may not often be considered in decision-making. In this case, women are no different. Every local board and commission affect women’s daily lives, from public works and parks to infrastructure and zoning. Women deserve a say in how these decisions are made.
Women who are seeking elected leadership and appointments are qualified for these positions. Localities need to intentionally recruit women because it benefits the entire board or commission, and therefore, the community. When women are present in diverse, mixed-gender professional settings, there is higher creativity, more innovative solutions, and better outcomes which is better for democracy and all of us.
Now is the time to make sure all Missourians are included, and we can start with local governments intentionally increasing the number of women serving on local boards and commissions. This will ensure that more women are recruited into the applicant pool and allow local governments to reach diverse women in the community who want to give back through public service. One of the first and easiest steps is for local governments to recruit diverse women in the community who want to give back through some form of public service.
Representative democracy is important because laws are being made that affect every person, not just those in the most populous places. It is past time to recognize that women belong at all decision-making tables and that there are qualified women waiting to serve on local boards and commissions. Missouri can be a leader in democracy, but we have to take women’s representation seriously and prioritize women’s political leadership.
Allison Gibbs is the director of Leadership Development and Special Projects at WEPOWER St. Louis and leads the Chisholm’s Chair fellowship program for Black and Latinx women interested in political leadership. Amanda Morrison is the founder and executive director of Missouri M.A.D.E., a non-partisan organization committed to identifying, recruiting, and training Missouri women to run for political office. Amanda Pohl is the programs director of ReflectUS, which accelerates and maximizes the collective impact of coalition members, people, and organizations working to expand political leadership of, by, and for all women.