Jean Carnahan grew up in a working class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where her father was a plumber and her mother a hairdresser. Determined to get a college education, Jean worked summers and during the school year while attending George Washington University.
In 1955, her dreams came true, when she earned a degree in Business and Public Administration, making her the first in her family to graduate from high school and college. In 1954, she married her high school sweetheart, Mel Carnahan, who would later become a country lawyer practicing in Rolla, Missouri, a small Ozark community. The couple raised four children on a farm near Rolla where she worked in political, civic, church, and scouting activities.
Jean and Mel worked side by side during his forty years of public service, winning seventeen successful political campaigns. When he became Governor of Missouri in 1992, having previously served as a legislator, State Treasurer and Lt. Governor, Jean took on the role of Missouri’s First Lady. From 1993 to 2000, as her husband led the state, she worked to improve the lives of Missouri’s children and to bring a new warmth and hospitality to the Governor’s Mansion. She was an advocate for on-site day care centers for working families, for childhood immunization, and for abuse centers, the arts, and Habitat for Humanity.
In 2000, her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, was campaigning for the U.S. Senate when her husband, their oldest son Randy, and his campaign adviser were killed in an airplane crash just three weeks before the election. On Election Day, Missouri voters elected Governor Carnahan posthumously by a 48,000-vote margin over Sen. John Ashcroft. When Jean agreed to take her husband’s place in Washington, the appointment made her the first woman in Missouri history to serve in the U.S. Senate.
During her two years in Washington, she was a leading advocate for working families. The Senate voted to include her first bill the, “Quality Classrooms Act,” in the “Leave No Child Behind” law. Following the Enron scandal, she introduced the “Informed Investors Act,” which passed into law, requiring corporations to make swift, electronic reporting of insider trading. She also secured an extension of health care benefits for returning reservists and National Guard personnel.
She served on the Commerce Committee, the Governmental Affairs Committee, the Special Committee on Aging, and the Small Business Committee. She was the fifth woman to ever serve on the Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Carnahan was a member of the first Congressional delegation to Afghanistan after 9-11 and conferred with heads of state in Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Oman.
In 2004, she was the National Democratic Institute’s representative at the national women’s political conference in Pristina, Kosovo, where she delivered the keynote address.
Watching the next generation of Carnahans run for public office, Jean jokes that the family’s political nature may come from “a genetic defect.” After their elections in 2004, her son, Russ served in the U.S. Congress for eight years and her daughter, Robin, served eight years as Missouri Secretary of State. Like her other children, Tom, is an attorney. He is the Past President of the American Wind Energy Association.
Since leaving the Senate, Jean resides in St. Louis, where she is a writer, speaker, political activist, and indulgent grandmother of six.
Jean Carnahan is the author of seven published books. Her first, written when she was First Lady of Missouri, is entitled If Walls Could Talk — a 440-page history of the state’s first families. Her autobiography entitled Don’t Let the Fire Go Out, highlights her service in the U.S. Senate. A speech on “Women of Achievement” was selected for national publication in Vital Speeches of the Day.
In 2009, she released a collection of inspirational essays entitled The Tide Always Comes Back. Her 2011 book, A Little Help from My Friends, is a witty, Erma Bombeck-style look at everyday life from a senior perspective, as is her 2014 offering, I’m a Humdinger and How Your Can Be One, Too, with the Help of a Child. Her current novel—a romantic comedy—is set in a small town in the seventies and is entitled The Secrets of Dawson Mills. Read the first chapter here.
She currently writes a food blog about the food scene in St. Louis: www.GoodFoodSTL.com.