The First Florida Women in Public Office

We’re getting close to some major anniversaries regarding women’s suffrage here in the United States. June 4, 2019 will mark 100 years since Congress approved the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. August 18, 2020 will be the centennial anniversary of the date when enough states had ratified the proposed amendment to make it effective. We tend to focus on how these momentous events forever changed voting rights, but there’s another related victory that deserves some attention as well. Beginning in 1920, many more women began serving in public office at the state and county level, a trend that is well documented in records available from the State Archives of Florida. Today’s blog explains a bit about the history of women in public service and offers some tips on how to find the first women from your Florida community to run for election or serve in office.

Edna Giles Fuller of Orange County, the first woman elected to the Florida Legislature (1929).

Edna Giles Fuller of Orange County, the first woman elected to the Florida Legislature (1929).

First things first: 1920 wasn’t actually the start of women voting in Florida, nor was it the start of women serving in public office. By the time the 19th Amendment was ratified, several Florida communities had already granted women the right to vote in municipal elections. Fellsmere (then in St. Lucie County) was the first to do so, having put the necessary language in an amendment to its town charter, which was approved by the Legislature and signed by Governor Park Trammell on June 8, 1915. Here is the relevant clause from Section 35 of the charter (Chapter 7154, Laws of Florida):

Every registered individual, male or female, elector shall be qualified to vote at any general or special election held under this Charter to elect or recall Commissioners, and at any other special election… 

Activists for women’s suffrage vowed to build on this victory, and soon other Florida towns adopted similar changes to their charters. By November 1919, a total of 16 towns in 10 counties allowed women to vote in municipal elections, including Fellsmere in what is now Indian River County; Tarpon Springs, Clearwater, Dunedin and St. Petersburg in Pinellas County; Aurantia and Cocoa in Brevard County; Orange City and DeLand in Volusia County; West Palm Beach and Delray in Palm Beach County; Florence Villa in Polk County; Miami in Dade County; Fort Lauderdale in Broward County; Moore Haven in DeSoto County; and Orlando in Orange County.

Cast from a play put on by members of the Koreshan Unity in Estero, Florida in favor of women's suffrage. The play was titled

Cast from a play put on by members of the Koreshan Unity in Estero, Florida in favor of women’s suffrage. The play was titled “Women, Women, Women, Suffragettes, Yes” (ca. 1910s).

Empowered to vote, a number of women began running for public office in these towns, and in some cases they were victorious. Marian Horwitz of Moore Haven was elected mayor on July 30, 1917, the first woman to serve in that role in Florida. It was an unusual case in that it was the town’s first mayoral election since incorporating in June, and Mrs. Horwitz was directly petitioned by every single registered voter in town to accept the position. Even the two men who had earlier been competing for the nomination bowed out when her name was put forward. Mrs. Horwitz initially refused the nomination, but eventually accepted and characterized it as a way for women to take on tasks that would free up men to support the United States’ efforts in World War I. “I once felt that a woman could not measure up physically to the work of handling public affairs,” she told the press after a few days in office. “In less than a week I have changed my mind.”

Marian Newhall Horwitz, later O'Brien (1917). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Marian Newhall Horwitz, later O’Brien (1917). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

But it wasn’t just municipal positions that women were filling in those days before the 19th Amendment. Many women also served in county and state positions, especially boards and commissions pertaining to issues where at that time a woman’s perspective and instincts were thought to be uniquely useful. Several women, for example, served on the state’s public school textbook selection committee, the State Board of Osteopathic Examiners and commissions in charge of planning for historic buildings and memorials. Records of commissions for court reporters and county probation officers also show a number of women in the ranks.

Page from the Secretary of State's officer directory showing where Sarah E. Wheeler of Lakeland was commissioned as a member of the State Board of Osteopathic Examiners in 1913. Volume 12, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida.

Page from the Secretary of State’s officer directory showing where Sarah E. Wheeler of Lakeland was commissioned as a member of the State Board of Osteopathic Examiners in 1913. Volume 12, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Women could also be appointed to major county offices. A common practice that lived on long after women gained the right to vote was for a woman to be appointed to complete her husband’s term in the event that he died while in office. That’s what happened in the case of Mary Jane Curry, for example, who became Monroe County’s treasurer in 1915 when her husband William died about six months into his term. Mrs. Curry was officially commissioned by the governor as her husband’s ad interim replacement, and she continued to serve until she was replaced by a newly elected successor in 1917. Other women were appointed to positions in their own right, such as Mamie Jarrell of Micanopy, who was appointed several times to the post of Marks and Brands Inspector for Alachua County.

Page from the Secretary of State's officer directory showing appointments for both William and Mary Jane Curry as county treasurer for Monroe County in 1915. Note that the record shows William died in office, and Mary Jane was appointed shortly thereafter to succeed him. Volume 12, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida.

Page from the Secretary of State’s officer directory showing appointments for both William and Mary Jane Curry as county treasurer for Monroe County in 1915. Note that the record shows William died in office, and Mary Jane was appointed shortly thereafter to succeed him. Volume 12, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Now let’s look at how to determine who the first women were in your Florida county to serve in public office, or at least run for office. The State Archives holds records pertaining to women in both categories. First, if a woman from your county was appointed to a county or state office (like Mamie Jarrell) or elected in her own right from 1920 onward, she would have received an official commission from the governor, countersigned by the Secretary of State. The State Archives holds the record copies for many of these commissions (Series S1285, et al), as well as a set of handwritten state and county officer directories (Series S1284), which function like an index to the commissions. One way to look for early elected or appointed women from your county is to look through these directories for names of female citizens. Here’s an interesting example from the first slate of county officers appointed to serve Collier County when it was established in 1923. On the page, we see that two women were among the appointees, including Mrs. T.C. (Mamie) Barfield as Superintendent of Public Instruction and Nellie Storter as Supervisor of Registration.

Page from the Secretary of State's officer directory showing the first officers appointed for the newly created Collier County in 1923. Two women are among the appointees. Volume 14, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Page from the Secretary of State’s officer directory showing the first officers appointed for the newly created Collier County in 1923. Two women are among the appointees. Volume 14, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

The state and county officer directories (Series S1284) are open to the public for research here at the State Archives, and our Reference Desk staff can also do a limited amount of research in the books if you have a specific person or range of years in mind. Once you find an index listing for a commission that interests you, we can determine if the State Archives also has a copy of the officeholder’s actual commission, signed oath of office or bond. See our blog post titled Researching State and County Officers for details.

Commission of Eleanor H. Floyd as tax assessor of Franklin County. Floyd was elected to the position just months after women nationwide gained the right to vote in 1920. Volume 15, State and County Officer Commissions (Series S1288), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Commission of Eleanor H. Floyd as tax assessor of Franklin County. Floyd was elected to the position just months after women nationwide gained the right to vote in 1920. Volume 15, State and County Officer Commissions (Series S1288), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

The State Archives’ Florida Memory team has also recently embarked on a project to digitize the state and county officer directories from the 1820s up through 1989. Digital volunteers from across the state have been helping with this exciting and valuable project by transcribing the handwritten data to make it searchable. If you would like to learn more about how to help, even at a distance, contact Archives Historian Dr. Josh Goodman at Josh.Goodman@dos.myflorida.com.

But wait, there’s more! The state and county officer directories are helpful for finding women who were actually appointed or elected to public office, but there were many, many more who ran for election and did not win their races. Luckily, even their candidacy can be documented using records available here at the State Archives.

After each primary and general election, a canvassing board for each county writes up an official report showing the names of the candidates who were on the ballot for each office and how many votes they each received. This report is then forwarded to the Secretary of State, who retains the election results and lets the governor know who to commission for each office. The State Archives holds a virtually complete set of these reports dating back to 1865. You can look through these canvassing reports to see not only who was elected to each public office, but also all of the candidates who ran against the winner and lost. This would be a useful tactic if you wanted to find the first women in your county to run for local office, regardless of whether they won or lost. Here’s an excerpt, for example, from the canvassing report for Palm Beach County for the general election of 1920, the first in which all women in the state had the right to vote. Agnes Ballard, who incidentally was Florida’s first registered female architect, is shown winning the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Excerpt of a page from the 1920 general election canvassing report for Palm Beach County. Agnes Ballard is shown as having received the largest number of votes for the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Volume 22, Canvassing Reports (Series S1258), State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt of a page from the 1920 general election canvassing report for Palm Beach County. Agnes Ballard is shown as having received the largest number of votes for the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Volume 22, Canvassing Reports (Series S1258), State Archives of Florida.

The canvassing reports (Series S1258) are grouped into volumes by election year and then by county. They are open to the public for research here at the State Archives. You can also contact the Reference Desk if you have questions about a specific race or if you are looking for a specific person.

With the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment upon us, now is an excellent time to do some research on the women in your county who have run for and served in public office. Take advantage of the resources available to you here at the State Archives, and let us know how we can help.

 

Women’s Equality Day: The First Ladies of Florida Politics

In 1929 a journalist reported on Florida’s first U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen’s unusual problem: no pockets! Unlike her male colleagues — whose suits were constructed with upwards of thirteen pockets — Owen’s feminine professional attire provided little room for storing the necessities men typically kept in their pockets. Insisting she needed her hands to orate and handle important bill files, Owen reportedly fashioned a makeshift knapsack with a long strap to wear across her shoulders. With her hands free, Owen helped represent the first generation of women in politics, advocating on behalf of her constituents in the 4th congressional district of Florida from 1929 to 1932. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, like many of Florida’s pioneering female politicians, faced new and unexpected challenges after winning the right to vote in 1920.

Since 1971, Florida has joined in the nationwide observance of Women’s Equality Day on August 26th. Women’s Equality Day commemorates the anniversary of the enactment of the 19th Amendment (see our blog on Florida’s women suffragists), which granted women’s suffrage, and symbolizes “the continued fight for equal rights.” Today, in honor of 96 years of women participating in Florida politics, we have profiled the history and achievements of four of Florida’s most path-breaking female elected officials.

Portrait of U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, c. 1929.

Portrait of U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, c. 1929.

 

Ruth Bryan Owen, Florida’s First U.S. Congresswoman (1929-1932)

The daughter of famed U.S. Congressman and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, Ruth Bryan Owen (1885-1954) became a ground-breaking politician in her own right after being elected to serve as Florida’s first female congresswoman in 1928. Having grown up in a well-connected, politically active family, Owen was fascinated by government. As a young girl in the 1890s, she delighted in watching her father debate in Congress, earning her the nickname “sweetheart of the house.” After living abroad with her husband during WWI, Owen settled in Coral Gables, Florida, and soon developed a reputation as a strong public speaker and political organizer. In the early 1920s she served as President of the Community Council of Civic Clubs and represented Florida on the National Council on Child Welfare. Though she lost her first campaign for Congress in 1926, she tried again in 1928 — touring her green Model T on an aggressive 500 stop speech-circuit from Jacksonville to Key West — and won.

Ruth Bryan Owen during congressional campaign, c. 1928.

Congressional candidate Ruth Bryan Owen poses with her secretary, driver and campaign car, “The Spirit of Florida.” Photo by G.W. Romer, c.1928.

As a congresswoman, she advocated for establishing the Everglades as a national park; expanded protections for children and families; and secured funding for a youth citizen program, which brought future leaders to Washington. “I like Congress. [I] always like work you feel you can do and I like to work for the people in Florida,” Owen said about her post. After a dry posture on alcohol prohibition caused her to lose reelection in 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Ruth Bryan Owen U.S. Minister to Denmark and Iceland, and once again she broke new ground as the first woman to hold such a high profile diplomatic position.

Name tag worn by student delegates to the Second Ruth Bryan Owen Brigade, 1931.

Owen enacted a youth civic engagement program and invited a delegation of students from each of her district’s 18 counties to shadow her in Washington.

Of this initiative she wrote: “I think there are two qualities all young people have. One is energy and the other is idealism. [If] it is just possible to translate government into the terms which appeal to that sense of idealism in youth we not only give to youth the most wonderful interest in the world, but we bring a powerful aid to government.”

Beth Johnson, Florida’s First Female State Senator (1963-1967)

Advertisement for Beth Johnson's State Senate campaign, c. 1962.

Advertisement for Beth Johnson’s State Senate campaign, c. 1962.

Elizabeth “Beth” McCullough Johnson (1909-1973) took her place in Sunshine State history when she won the distinction of being the first woman elected to serve in the state senate in 1962. After graduating with a B.A. from prestigious Vassar College in 1930, Johnson relocated with her husband to Orlando in 1934. For the next two decades, the mother of three children assumed leadership positions in various local civic organizations like the Orlando Junior League, the League of Women Voters, and the Orlando Planning Board. In 1957, she became the second woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives and subsequently won reelection until 1962 with her historic election as the first female state senator.

In the Florida Senate until 1967, Johnson championed educational access and mental health issues, taking on membership in the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, Constitution Revision Commission, and the Legislative Council Committee on Mental Health. Specifically, she advocated for daytime access to adult education, lamenting that “too many feminine Phi Beta Kappa minds are in the kitchen. They should be going to college during the same hours their youngsters are attending school.”  Perhaps her greatest achievement as senator came in 1965 when she pushed for the passage of a $7.5 million bond program for the construction and establishment of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  For her accomplishments, Senator Beth Johnson received the Susan B. Anthony Award as Democratic Woman of the Year in 1966 as “the woman who most nobly, ably and conscientiously exemplifies the entire spirit of the 19th Amendment.”

Carrie Meek, Florida’s First African-American Member of U.S. Congress since Reconstruction (1993-2002)

Portrait of Representative Carrie Meek, 1984.

Portrait of Representative Carrie Meek, 1984.

The 1992 election of Florida Congresswoman Carrie P. Meek (b. 1927) signaled the start of a new era in Florida politics: Meek would be Florida’s first African-American representative in U.S. Congress since Reconstruction. Although the 19th amendment barred voter discrimination on the basis of sex, it did not address the longstanding tradition of racism at the polls. The passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964, which outlawed poll taxes, and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, which spurred the fair redrawing of congressional districts, helped combat this racism. Carrie Meek, the granddaughter of former slaves, would lead the way for a new generation of black politicians in Florida.

Born in 1926, Meek grew up as the daughter of sharecroppers in the “black bottom” neighborhood of Tallahassee, receiving her education at the segregated Lincoln High School and Florida A&M University before earning a graduate degree from the University of Michigan.  In 1961, the newly divorced mother of two accepted a teaching position at Miami-Dade Community College (then Dade County Junior College). In 1978, after two decades as an educator, administrator, and community activist, she successfully campaigned for a spot in the Florida House of Representatives. A few years later in 1982, she became the first African-American woman elected to the Florida State Senate. During her tenure in the Florida Legislature, Meek advocated for gender, racial and economic equality.

State Representative Carrie Meek seated in the Florida House Chamber, c. 1980.

Representative Carrie Meek seated in the Florida House Chamber, c. 1980.

From there, the 66-year-old grandmother set her sights on a federal ticket, capturing 83 percent of the vote in her historic 1992 run to represent Florida’s 17th congressional district on Capitol Hill. But, as Congresswoman Meek saw it, her responsibilities stretched beyond her Miami-based constituency to blacks throughout the state, who now, for the first time in over a century, had political representation in the federal lawmaking body: “[African-Americans in Florida will] have somebody they know will be attuned to their needs… Many [whites] are sensitive but they can’t really understand how hard we’ve had to struggle.”

During her first years in Washington, Meek fought hard for a spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee — a position typically closed to freshmen representatives — and made federal funding to relieve the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in Miami a top priority. Among other initiatives in Washington, Meek sponsored bills related to immigration and welfare reform, as well as increased entrepreneurial opportunities for African-Americans. In 2002, at the age of 76, Carrie P. Meek decided not to seek re-election due to her age. Upon her departure, she expressed deep affection for the ten years she spent in Washington: “I wish I could say I was tired of Congress [but] I love it still.”

Paula Hawkins, Florida’s First Female U.S. Senator (1981-1986)

Portrait of U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins, 1980.

Portrait of U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins, 1980.

U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins (1927-2009) still holds the title of the only Florida woman elected to serve in the upper house of Congress.  Hawkins also carries the distinction of being the first woman to win a full Senate term without a political family connection.  Before representing Floridians in Washington, Paula Hawkins lived in Winter Park and served on the Florida Public Service Commission from 1973-1979. She ran two unsuccessful campaigns, one for U.S. Senate in 1974 and the other for lieutenant governor in 1978. Then, in 1980, the “fighting Maitland housewife,” who stood on a platform of conservative family values, won the race for U.S. Senate by a landslide — making her just one of two women in the U.S. Senate at the time. Shortly after her victory, a male reporter sarcastically asked who would do the laundry while she was busy lawmaking. “I don’t really think you need to worry about my laundry,” snapped the first female senator to bring her husband with her to Washington.

In the U.S. Senate, Hawkins emerged as a tireless advocate for children, families  and drug-free youth.  Among her major legislative achievements, Senator Hawkins sponsored the National Missing Children’s Act in 1982, which allowed for federal intervention in state kidnapping cases and created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. On her crusade for children’s welfare, Paula Hawkins even spoke openly about how her own experiences as a child abuse victim inspired her fight for neglected and mistreated children in the Congress. “I can recall today how terrified I was…. I was embarrassed and humiliated…. Now, when children complain, I believe them,” she revealed to her constituents. Despite her advocacy for vulnerable youth, Hawkins ultimately lost a heated reelection race against Governor Bob Graham in 1986.  Nonetheless, her unmatched service as Florida’s first and only female U.S. Senator keeps her ranked high among the state’s most accomplished women in politics.

These are profiles of just four of the many Florida women who shaped state and national politics in the twentieth century.  For additional resources on the history and contributions of women in Florida, check out our Guide to Women’s History Collections.