It was spring of 1989, and Colleen Coble had been working as a lobbyist in Jefferson City for just a few months.
She stood in the gallery of the Missouri House of Representatives, waiting for a bill regarding protections for domestic violence victims to come up for a vote.
It had to pass out of the House that day, or the ground-breaking bill – to require law enforcement officers to make an arrest if they are called to the same address twice within 12 hours and have probable cause of a domestic-violence violation – would die.
Coble, then 29 and one of the few women lobbyists at the time, suddenly realized that she had an unexpected trick to remind legislators – the black vintage sequin dress she was wearing.
“If I moved, the light sent sparkles out on the [House] floor,” Coble said, “and so people would look up in the gallery. And I’d give them a thumbs up.”
The bill, which she’d spent the entire session pushing for, passed. She later learned that the Capitol reporters had been betting on whether or not she would be able to pass a bill in her first legislative session, which was rare.
Most of them lost.
“I knew it was a big deal,” she said. “But it wasn’t impossible. And that’s kind of been a theme throughout the years.”
In 1988, Coble, a former journalist herself, was hired as CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence to do exactly what she did that day – to help strengthen policies that protect victims, as well as secure funding for shelters and programs statewide.
Thirty-three years later, Coble will retire as the organization’s leader on Dec. 31, with a legacy of transformative change statewide and nationally.
“If there is a law that’s related to domestic violence or sexual violence, she’s had a hand in that,” said incoming CEO for the coalition Cheryl Robb-Welch, who has worked with Coble for two decades. “Folks outside the realm of Jefferson City, I don’t know fully understand what a great asset she’s been to Missouri.”
When Coble first started, there were only 13 domestic-violence programs involved in the coalition, which is a non-profit membership organization of community-based agencies.
Now there are more than 120, including shelters and other non-residential domestic violence programs.
“That’s all due to her leadership,” said Mary Ann Allen, recently retired executive director of the shelter Haven House in Poplar Bluff and former coalition board chair.
Allen was among the original 13 program directors, who had been “flailing” to lobby for resources and lead their shelters, she said.
“She grounded us and kept us in line,” Allen said. “She also gave us flight. We were able then to start doing things, rather than stressing about them.”
A native of Missouri, Coble graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and worked at Investigative Reporters and Editors before accepting a reporting job in Washington state.
But it didn’t last long.
“There was a hole in the budget just large enough for me to fall through,” she said of the newspaper.
While reporting on city and state government in Washington, she had met a group of women who were trying to find state funding to start a sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse program. She decided to volunteer with the group, while she was sending out resumes to other newspapers and waiting tables.
A month and a half later, they hired her.
“I was really lucky to learn directly from those who were in need,” Coble said. “It was quite the education. It was hard.”
Coble was able to mirror the work they’d accomplished in Washington on protective orders in her 1989 bill. That bill was significant because it began to change the conversation about domestic violence, Allen said.
“When we first started, it was really considered a family’s private business,” Allen said. “And so it was difficult for a lot of folks to see that as something that should be legislated.”
One of the ways that Coble said she was able to change that mindset was by connecting to people’s values.
“It can be something as simple and as profound as, ‘I know you don’t want anyone to get hurt,’” Coble said of her conversations with legislators. “‘And I know you don’t want anybody to be all alone when they’re hurt.’”
Some legislators made that connection quickly and became champions and leaders, she said, but others were “hard nuts to crack” and required a different approach.
“Then you merge into the practical [approach] of, ‘Your phone is not going to stop ringing, sir, until you do this,” she said.
And they had to get crafty sometimes, like when they were working on the bill to make marital rape a criminal offense in 1991 — which undid the long-held defense that if a man was married to the woman, it wasn’t rape.
For that bill, advocates purposely called legislators’ homes on Thursday morning, knowing that they would be heading home that afternoon. Most of the legislators were older white men who had wives at home, she said.
When the wives answered the phone, advocates would pretend they meant to call the office line and say, “I must have missed dialed, but while I’ve got you, can you ask your husband why he’s voting against the law that would make it a crime to rape your wife?” Coble remembers.
“On Monday, everybody was ready to vote for the bill,” Coble said. “It sometimes was unusual approaches that were very effective.”
One of things Coble is most proud of is the task force she helped establish with then-Attorney General Chris Koster, where they held public testimony on domestic violence and policies in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia in 2010.
The first domestic violence law in Missouri was passed in 1980, but with years of amendments, the law wasn’t cohesive, Coble said.
In the task force’s report, Koster wrote that his recommendations included something, “as straightforward as enacting a consistent definition of ‘domestic violence.’”
The legislation that passed unanimously as a result of that work changed the sexual assault law in Missouri, she said, so that there weren’t so many caveats and loopholes.
“It was an action without consent,” Coble said. “That may not sound like much, but it transforms the nature of the law. If it’s without my consent, it’s an offense.”
Koster called Coble a “gift to the State of Missouri.”
“She worked endlessly and tirelessly to raise awareness against the scourge of domestic violence and to make Missouri a safer place,” Koster said. “Superlatives do not begin to repay the debt of gratitude we owe her.”
Along with this far-reaching legislation, Coble’s legacy includes first-time state funding for domestic and sexual violence services, funding for sexual assault evidence exams and local funding initiatives for domestic violence shelters.
She also helped change custody and visitation to protect abused women and their children and statewide collection of law enforcement and homicide data on domestic-violence crimes.
In the mid-1990s, Coble developed Missouri’s statewide project to address the needs of impoverished victims of domestic violence through training more than 6,000 staff of the Department of Social Services. In 1994, she obtained the nation’s first federal disaster relief funding for domestic violence services.
She’s also had a big impact nationally, notably she had a hand in writing the federal Violence Against Women Act, which recognizes domestic violence is a national crime.
Allen remembers going to meetings for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, where Coble was a founding member.
“I would just watch women from around the country listen to what Colleen had to say,” Allen said. “She was a voice of reason. She’s just such a leader.”
The importance of humor
Chris Kelly, who was serving as a state representative when Coble came to the Capitol, said that most of the effective lobbyists in the building have a lot of power and a lot of money.
“Collen never had any power or any money and she accomplished tremendous things for her clients,” Kelly said. “It seemed like every single year, she brought home something for abused women.”
Kelly said over the years, Coble worked well with budget committee chairs, regardless of their political affiliation.
“The work on a public policy level hasn’t been defined by party,” Coble said, “and that’s something I am very proud of.”
Kelly also said that when Coble first arrived, she “puzzled” many people at the Capitol with her “flamboyant outfits.”
Coble found that wearing her own clothes – which were largely unique vintage dresses and clothes – became a helpful conversation starter, she said.
“They’d be like, ‘Well, what in the world is on your shoes?’” Coble said, remembering how she’d respond. “‘My shoes are covered with a puzzle. It’s always a puzzle here, senator, so if you give me a moment…’”
Over the decades, there have been many incredible victories but also hard days and devastating setbacks, she said.
Having a sense of humor and connecting with people was key in helping her get through it all.
“I’ve learned that from those I worked with in shelters and on crisis lines,” she said. “There’s still good in the world. There’s occasion to laugh and be joyful, even in the midst of it. And that’s what helps you get out of that and transition into better times. That’s been real important — to not lose touch with that. ”