Florida and the Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment

Florida’s diverse and heavily populated electorate has written its longstanding reputation as a political battleground state — in the 1970s, one of the biggest battle facing state lawmakers was the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The amendment proposed that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex,” and stirred ongoing controversy between leaders of the women’s liberation movement and anti-feminist activists. Though it ultimately never passed, Floridians’ response to the ERA mirrored the sharp national divide over the amendment’s message on gender equality.

ERA supporters rally outside the Florida Capitol Complex, 1981.

ERA supporters rally outside the Florida Capitol Complex to kick off ERA Awareness Week, November 1981. Their efforts were aimed at pressuring lawmakers to ratify the amendment during the 1982 Legislative Session.

In 1923, three years after American women won the right to vote, National Woman’s Party President Alice Paul wrote and introduced the ERA to U.S. Congress. Only three short sentences long, its intent to eliminate all sex-based legal distinctions was clear, but  it failed to gain unanimous political support from the outset. Some feminists viewed the ERA as the surest avenue for eliminating gender discrimination, but opponents countered that it would undermine hard-fought legal protections for women such as maternity leave and revised labor laws (Muller v. Oregon, 1908). As was the trend in many states in the years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the vigilant political activism that had won women the right to vote died down in Florida. Though there had been a suffrage movement in Florida in the 1910s, the state constitution did not officially adopt provisions for women’s voting rights until 1969.

League of Women Voters recreating scenes of suffrage activism on the steps of the old Florida Capitol, 1963.

League of Women Voters recreating scenes of suffrage activism on the steps of the old Florida Capitol, 1963.

For over four decades after Alice Paul drafted the ERA, it languished unaddressed in a congressional committee, until the 1960s when the women’s liberation movement strengthened renewed interest in the measure. Both the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed gender discrimination. Both the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed gender discrimination on the federal level. At the state level, population increases and legislative reapportionment in 1960s diversified legislative representation and sparked the passage of more progressive legislation–lawmakers barred sex-based discrimination in divorce, custody and child support cases in Florida. In 1966, Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray and many other feminists co-founded the National Organization of Women (NOW) to enforce these new laws and further advocate for women’s equality. Despite marked gains in addressing some of the specific issues, NOW stressed that the new laws contained insidious loopholes, and insisted that the ratification of the ERA was the best solution for achieving true gender equality. “Existing laws are not doing the job,” said Florida State Senator Betty Castor, echoing the sentiment of ERA proponents across the nation.

A brochure produced by the American Association of University Women encouraging women to support the Equal Rights Amendment, ca. 1974. Governor's Commission on the Status of Women (S.79), Box 1, Folder 37, State Archives of Florida.

A brochure produced by the American Association of University Women encouraging women to support the Equal Rights Amendment, ca. 1974. Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women (.S 79), Box 1, Folder 37, State Archives of Florida.

One of the most outspoken members of NOW was pioneering feminist Roxcy O’Neal Bolton from Miami. Bolton launched the Miami Chapter of NOW in 1966 and was elected national vice-president of NOW in 1969, in which capacity she became one of the ERA’s chief advocates. Her husband, Commander David Bolton U.S.N., later presided over the organization Men for ERA.

Roxcy and David Bolton in Miami, 1961.

Roxcy and David Bolton in Miami, 1961. Learn more about Roxcy Bolton’s fight for women’s equality in our online exhibit.

With the ERA gaining traction, Roxcy Bolton personally, and successfully, lobbied Indiana Senator Birch Bayh for sponsorship while he was visiting Miami in January 1970. The next month, members of NOW picketed a congressional committee hearing, demanding action on the ERA. On August 10, 1970, U.S. Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan submitted a petition to finally bring the ERA to the House floor for a debate and vote. It passed and headed to the Senate for approval. On March 22, 1972, the U.S. Senate voted in favor of the ERA.

But the real battle began when the ERA went to the states for ratification, where it would need a three-fourths majority approval to become law. “Our work has just begun,” squared Bolton. “We’ve got to get ratification. We must start in each state and see what we can do.”

Within one year, 30 state legislatures had ratified it. But Florida’s had not.  Nonetheless, in 1974, the ERA seemed unstoppable. But eight more states still needed to ratify it by the 1979 deadline and it soon met fierce obstruction.

Roxcy Bolton (center) and Representative Gwen Cherry (to Bolton's left) leading an ERA march, ca. 1972. Re. Cherry was the first black woman to serve in the Florida Legislature and the first person to introduce the ERA to the House Judiciary Committee in 1972.

Roxcy Bolton (center) and Representative Gwendolyn Cherry (to Bolton’s left) leading an ERA march, ca. 1972. Rep. Cherry was the first black woman to serve in the Florida Legislature and the first person to introduce the ERA to the House Judiciary Committee in 1972.

In Florida, the amendment was introduced or voted on in every legislative session from 1972 until 1982. Though it passed the Florida House of Representatives on several occasions, it never passed the Senate. Thirty women served in the Florida legislature between 1920 and 1978, but when the ERA was first introduced into the Florida Senate in 1974, the only woman in the legislative body was Senator Lori Wilson. She became the original sponsor and solitary female voice of the ERA in the senate, and she faced an uphill battle with convincing many of her reluctant colleagues to ratify it. In 1977, she took her stand on the senate floor:

… the good old boys in the southern legislatures traditionally do not consider people issues like ERA on their merit. They consider only what it might do to their manliness or their money-ness or their manpower…. [They]refused to give up their slaves … [or] approve the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote … fought the 1964 Civil Rights Act … until the rest of this nation fought them in the courtrooms, and on the streets, and at the polls … with legal power, and … PEOPLE POWER.

League of Women Voters of Florida pamphlet explaining the group's pro-ERA position, the statewide ratification campaign, and the amendment's legislative history, 1977.

League of Women Voters of Florida pamphlet explaining the group’s pro-ERA position, the statewide ratification campaign, and the amendment’s legislative history, 1977. Florida Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women (.S 79), Box 1, Folder 37, State Archives of Florida.

Since its initial submission to the legislature, every Florida governor had expressed support for the ERA.

Governor Reubin Askew addresses an ERA rally on the capitol steps, 1978.

Governor Reubin Askew addresses an ERA rally on the capitol steps, 1978. Beginning in 1972, Askew also oversaw the first functional Florida Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, charged with  identifying and increasing public awareness of the needs and concerns of Florida women. Among other things, the commission was active in ERA ratification efforts.

But as political scientist Joan S. Carver has observed, the legislature’s unpredictable mix of strong personalities and political interests proved far less agreeable. One of the ERA’s biggest foes was Senator Dempsey Barron of Panama City, who served as Senate President from 1975-76 and in the Senate until 1988. A powerful force in the Florida Senate, Barron emphasized a belief that voting for the ERA would accelerate moral decay and give undue power to the federal government. He asked his senate colleagues, “How many of you want to transfer those remaining powers we have under the present Constitution into the hands of the federal government and the federal courts?” His political sway effectively won several “no” votes during the ERA years.

Portrait of Senator Dempsey Barron, 1982.

Portrait of Senator Dempsey Barron, 1982.

Representative Gene Hodges with STOP ERA sign draped from his desk in the House chamber, ca. 1972. Photograph by Donn Dughi, State Archives of Florida.

Representative Gene Hodges with lace STOP ERA apron draped from his desk in the House Chamber, 1974. ERA opponents reportedly sported red aprons like this one as they made the rounds at the Capitol, offering baked goods, “from the bread makers to the breadwinners” to legislators. Proponents also began offering up homemade treats. Donn Dughi/State Archives of Florida.

By the mid-1970s, a vocal faction of anti-feminist activists led by lawyer and politician, Phyllis Schlafly, had begun organizing the Stop-ERA campaign. Their strategy was to thwart ratification in the states. “[The ERA] is a giant takeaway of the rights women now have,” Schlafly told a Miami Herald reporter in 1974. “It will not give any advantages to women in the employment area, the one area where women are discriminated against,” she concluded. In Florida, former beauty-queen and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, along with anti-feminist Miami radio host Shirley Spellerberg, spearheaded Schlafly’s cause. In 1979, Spellerberg explained her belief that women were meant to be homemakers to the Boca-Raton News: “Little girls in the formative years should view women as mothers and homemakers, this is their ideal role in the traditional family structure.” Whereas Florida’s feminists found their political support in the state’s increasingly urban voting base, the Stop-ERA campaign wedged itself into the state’s many conservative, rural and elderly pockets.

STOP ERA pamphlet describing the positions of the movement, ca. 1972. Florida Governor's Commission on the Status of Women (S.79), Box 1, Folder 36, State Archives of Florida.

STOP ERA pamphlet describing the positions of the movement, ca. 1972. Florida Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women (S.79), Box 1, Folder 36, State Archives of Florida.

In the 1970s, sizable groups of feminist and anti-feminist activists made regular trips to Tallahassee to lobby the legislature for and against the ERA. Moreover, women from both sides organized rallies, marches, workshops and fundraisers all over the state.

Anti-ERA lobbyists speaking with lawmakers in the Florida Capitol rotunda, 1975

Anti-ERA lobbyists speaking with lawmakers in the Capitol Rotunda, 1975.

When the original ratification deadline came in 1979, 35 state legislatures had approved the amendment, Florida not included. The ERA was still three states shy of the three-fourths majority needed to amend gender equality to the U.S. Constitution.

ERA demonstration between the Florida Capitol and Supreme Court building, 1979.

ERA demonstration between the Florida Capitol and Supreme Court building, 1979.

Anti-ERA activists line the wall of the Florida Senate chamber, 1979.

Anti-ERA activists line the wall of the Florida Senate Chamber, 1979. State Archives of Florida/Dughi.

In 1978 NOW organized a 100,000 person march in Washington D.C. demanding an extension on the ratification deadline. President Jimmy Carter approved a three year extension. In 1982, four of the remaining 15 undecided states, including Florida, declared special legislative sessions to cast their final vote on the ERA. The state capitol saw tremendous turnout as both pro and anti-ERA activists threw their remaining energy into the last battle over the ERA. The media drew heightened awareness to Florida’s position as a “swing state,” suggesting that the Legislature’s decision on the ERA would be a toss-up.

ERA supporters in the capitol rotunda, 1982.

ERA supporters in the capitol rotunda, 1982.

Constituents from all over the state and nation wrote letters to Governor Bob Graham and their representatives about the matter.

Though it was once poised for quick ratification, the ERA met its final snag with the unpredictable mix of personalities in the Senate, failing in a final vote of 22-16.

Political cartoon showing the final results of the Florida Senate vote on the ERA, 1982. Dana Summers, Orlando Sentinel.

Political cartoon showing the final results of the Florida Senate vote on the ERA, 1982. Dana Summers, Orlando Sentinel.

None of the other three legislatures passed it either, and with that, ratification was off the table. Over thirty-five years later, representatives from both the Florida House and Senate have continued to introduce the ERA into committees to no avail. For now, the wildly controversial amendment effectively remains dormant in Florida.

Selected Sources:

Roxcy O’Neal Bolton Papers (M94-1). State Archives of Florida.

Florida Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women (.S 79). State Archives of Florida.

Governor Bob Graham Correspondence Files (.S 850). State Archives of Florida.

***The State Archives of Florida has digitized additional pamphlets and correspondence related to the ratification of the ERA in Florida.

Brock, Laura E. “Religion, Sex, and Politics: The Story of the ERA in Florida.” Florida State University: M.A. Thesis, 2013.

Carver, Joan S. “The Equal Rights Amendment and the Florida Legislature,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 60:4 (April 1982):455-481.

Wilmot Voss, Kimberly. “The Florida Fight for Equality: The Equal Rights Amendment, Senator Lori Wilson and Mediated Catfights in the 1970s,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 88:2(Fall, 2009):173-208.

What’s in a Hurricane’s Name?

Does a hurricane’s name really matter?  In the 1970s, Vice-President of the National Organization of Women (NOW) Roxcy Bolton certainly thought so. At that time the National Weather Service (NWS) selected exclusively feminine names to identify hurricanes. To the leading Florida feminist, who preferred the term “him-icane,” the established hurricane naming practice constituted a “slur on women,” with no place in the emerging women’s liberation movement. Ever a woman of action, Roxcy Bolton weathered stormy opposition for the better part of the 1970s, working to revise the gendered naming of hurricanes and challenge social perceptions of women.

Satirical cartoon of Roxcy Bolton and the NOW campaign to stop only using female names to identify hurricanes. Cartoonist Dave Cross drew this rendition of Bolton, and it appeared in the local news section of the Miami Herald on March 28, 1970.

Satirical cartoon of Roxcy Bolton and the NOW campaign against the exclusive use of female names to identify hurricanes. Cartoonist Dave Cross drew this rendition of Bolton, which appeared in the local news section of the Miami Herald on March 28, 1970.

More hurricanes have hit Florida than any other state in the Union. While the National Hurricane Center dates the first recorded tempest to hit Florida to 1523, the trend of naming them after women did not start until 1953. The first, Hurricane Barbara, swept through the Outer Banks of North Carolina in August of that year. For the next twenty-five hurricane seasons, memorable “female” hurricanes like Donna (1960), Carla (1961), Inez (1966), and Gladys (1968) would claim responsibility for numerous Floridians’ deaths and the physical destruction of countless Florida communities. Roxcy Bolton, Coral Gables resident and founding member of the Miami-Dade Chapter of NOW, took stock of the all-female cast of the mid-twentieth century’s deadliest storms: “I’m sick and tired of hearing that ‘Cheryl was no lady and she devastated such and such town’ or ‘Betsy annihilated this or that,’ ” she told the press.

Remains of a Coral Cove home after Hurricane Donna swept through Florida in September 1960.

Remains of a Coral Cove home after Hurricane Donna swept through Florida in September 1960.

Bolton took her initial stand after the NWS released the predetermined list of names for the 1970 hurricane season. Alma was at the top, followed by Becky, Celia, Dorothy, Ella, and a number of other traditional feminine names all the way through to Wilna. Determined to dismantle the naming pattern, Bolton made a personal trip down to the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami and demanded immediate name-changes. “Women are not disasters, destroying life and communities and leaving a lasting devastating effect,” she argued. Assistant Director of the NHC Arnold Sugg refused to alter the list, claiming “[n]o more can it [hurricane names of 1970] be changed than people can stop the Vietnam War…. [I]t’s practically impossible to make a change this late in the year.” Sugg further minimized her request, noting that the National Hurricane Center received few complaints and instead explained that “mail from women runs about 8 or 9 to one in favor of feminine names.  A lot of women even ask us to name hurricanes for them.” Unmoved by the NHC’s rationalizations, Bolton suggested those women to be “too conditioned” and unaware of the social consequences of their requests, making the case that “[a]s long as people can name [hurricanes] after us it’s just another way of putting women down…. In 1970 it is time to take women seriously as human beings.”

Letter from NOW to the National Hurricane Center demanding an end to the gendered naming of tropical cyclones. March 1970.

Letter from NOW to the National Hurricane Center demanding an end to the gendered naming of tropical cyclones. March 1970.

As she mounted her hurricane campaign, Bolton and other members of NOW repeatedly wrote the NWS with suggestions for alternative, less derogatory formulae for hurricane-naming. First, she publicized her distaste for the term “hurricane,” which she asserted sounded too much like “her-icane,” referring to them as “him-icanes” instead. From there, she advocated for the idea of naming hurricanes (or him-icanes) solely after U.S. senators. Associate Director of the NWS, Karl Johanssen scoffed at the idea, asking the forty-six-year-old NOW vice-president if it was her intention to “cast a slur on U.S. Senators.” “No, it’s just that senators delight in having things named after them,” she quipped. In an attempt at compromise, Johanssen suggested an alternating system in which men’s names be used one year, and women’s in the next.  Bolton didn’t budge, retorting “we’ve already been blessed for 18 years, enough is enough.” She also proposed the idea of naming hurricanes after birds, but this, too, was rejected by the NWS on the grounds that it might offend the Audubon Society. Though critics accused Bolton of fabricating a gender inequality issue over the allegedly innocent naming of tropical tempests after women, she later recalled that the hurricane campaign reflected the broader goals of feminism in the early 1970s. Bolton assessed that at that time feminism was “as much about changing the role and attitudes toward [women] as putting money in their pockets.”

Letter from Roxcy Bolton to Director of the National Hurricane Center Robert H. Simpson, suggesting alternatives for identifying tropical cyclones. January 2, 1972.

Letter from Roxcy Bolton to Director of the National Hurricane Center, Robert H. Simpson, suggesting alternatives for identifying tropical cyclones. January 2, 1972.

Finally, in 1978 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency overseeing the NWS and the NHC, heeded Roxcy Bolton’s requests. “Some women suggested that the naming procedure was sexist. I believe that to be true,” admitted NOAA administrator Richard Frank. NOAA ultimately agreed to a new system of generating an alternating male-female list of names every six years — a system that still remains in place today. However, Bolton maintained that she was not exactly “enthusiastic” about naming tropical cyclones after men or women because of “the negative image it projects.”  1979 would be the first hurricane season to include both male and female names. On this innovation, which garnered both national and international attention, the Christian Science Monitor concluded: “While [it] may not go down in the annals of women’s liberation as a milestone, it nevertheless is lauded by some feminists as a small victory for womankind and, they would hasten to add, mankind.” The first “male” hurricane, Bob, made landfall in Louisiana on July 11 1979. Hurricanes David, Frederic, Gloria, and Henri rounded out the 1979 season. Since then, infamous Florida hurricanes like Andrew (1992) and Ivan (2004) have joined Jeanne (2004) and Wilma (2005) in the recent memory of Florida’s most destructive natural disasters.

Roxcy Bolton speaking with Director of the National Hurricane Center Robert Simpson about the hurricane-naming issue in January 1972.

Roxcy Bolton speaking with Director of the National Hurricane Center, Robert Simpson about the hurricane-naming issue in January 1972.

Pressuring weather officials to forego the tradition of using exclusively feminine sobriquets for hurricanes is just one of many of Roxcy Bolton’s contributions to gender equality in Florida. For additional resources on Roxcy Bolton’s involvement in the women’s liberation movement be sure to check out some of the highlights from the State Archives of Florida’s Roxcy Bolton Collection (M94-1) in our online exhibit “Roxcy Bolton: A Force for Equality.”

Women’s Equality Day

A Joint Resolution of Congress in 1971 designated August 26th of each year as Women’s Equality Day and requested the President to issue a proclamation annually to commemorate that day. That Joint Resolution resulted in this 1972 Proclamation issued by President Richard Nixon.

Women's Rights Day Proclamation, 1972

The Proclamation was later presented to Roxcy O’Neal Bolton, the driving force behind the designation of August 26 as Women’s Equality Day.

Letter from Senator Edward J. Gurney to Roxcy Bolton, September 12, 1972

Letter from Senator Edward J. Gurney to Roxcy Bolton, September 12, 1972

A long-time Coral Gables resident and a 1984 inductee in the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, Bolton is known in Florida for gaining access for women to the previously all-male lunchrooms at Burdines and Jordan Marsh department stores; for helping to end the practice of naming hurricanes only for women; and for opening the influential Tiger Bay political club to women.

Bolton was inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s stances on civil rights and was profoundly affected by her address at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, hearing her call to “help all of our people to a better life” as a personal call to action.

Roxcy Bolton with Eleanor Roosevelt at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago, 1956

Roxcy Bolton with Eleanor Roosevelt at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago, 1956

Roosevelt, who was a strong proponent of gender equality and supporter of working women, had her own sources of inspiration, including from Floridians. She met Mary McLeod Bethune at an education conference in 1927, gaining from her an understanding of racial issues and becoming a close friend of Bethune’s.

Eleanor Roosevelt with Mary McLeod Bethune (center) at Bethune Cookman College, Daytona Beach, 1952

Eleanor Roosevelt with Mary McLeod Bethune (center) at Bethune Cookman College, Daytona Beach, 1952

August 26: Women’s Equality Day

On September 12, 1972, Florida Senator Edward J. Gurney sent Roxcy Bolton a copy of the Women’s Rights Day Proclamation (now Women’s Equality Day) signed by President Richard M. Nixon. Gurney explained that he wanted her to have the document because “without your suggestion and pushing, there would not have been a Women’s Rights Day.”

Women’s Equality Day is observed nationally each year on August 26 to commemorate the day in 1920 that the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, granting women full voting rights.

Edward J. Gurney to Roxcy Bolton, September 12, 1972

Edward J. Gurney to Roxcy Bolton, September 12, 1972

The newest film added to the Florida Memory website features a 2001 interview with Roxcy Bolton for Coral Gables Television. In the interview, Bolton talks about how her upbringing in Mississippi instilled values that paved the way for a life of determined activism. Bolton also discusses several instances from her life in Coral Gables that demonstrate her commitment to equality.

Roxcy Bolton

Roxcy Bolton

Bolton gained notoriety in Florida for establishing shelters for homeless and battered women; for gaining access for women to the previously all-male lunchrooms at Burdines and Jordan Marsh department stores; for helping to end the practice of assigning only female names to hurricanes; and for opening the influential Tiger Bay political club to women. Her many years of pioneering equal rights activism have earned her numerous awards, including induction into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984.

Please join us in commemorating Women’s Equality Day and recognizing Roxcy Bolton’s role in the Equal Rights Movement.

Learn more about Roxcy Bolton on Florida Memory.