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.

 

Roxcy Bolton: Advocate for Women in Crisis

It wasn’t long ago that the United States did not have centers for women in crisis. In 1971, feminist Roxcy Bolton declared that the creation of crisis centers was long overdue. She shed light upon this issue amidst rising rates of crimes against women and outcries from women throughout the state of Florida. The creation of a treatment center for victims of sexual assault would not come easily or quickly. However, when it was established, it was the first of its kind in the nation and it set a precedent for those that followed.

Portrait of Roxcy Bolton, 1988.

Bolton was a pioneer of the feminist movement within Florida and nationwide, and “firsts” were something she excelled at. She founded the first National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter in the state of Florida. She initiated a neighborhood crime watch in the city of Coral Gables, where she resided throughout most of her activism. The watch was the first of its kind in Florida, and through it Bolton empowered community members to watch after each other to prevent violent crime. She also founded Women in Distress in 1972, the first women’s rescue shelter in Florida. Women in Distress provided housing, rescue services and assistance to women in situations of personal crisis. It should be unsurprising then that two of Bolton’s many passions were women’s health and community safety. Her dedication to these initiatives is evident throughout the Roxcy O’Neal Bolton Papers, collection M94-1 at the State Archives.

Bolton’s drive for women’s health and safety pushed her to petition for change in sexual assault treatment and legislation. Bolton saw problems with how these issues were handled in Dade County. Victims, from Bolton’s perspective, were being treated inadequately by law enforcement. She also noted a stigma that followed victims throughout their everyday life. The stigma was apparent in the way victims were spoken about or to, as well as within the literature surrounding assault prevention. These factors, Bolton argued, were discouraging women from coming forward for help and from pursuing prosecution.

In a 1973 letter from Bolton to Sheriff and Director of Public Safety of Miami E. Wilson Purdy, Bolton declared that police officers must re-evaluate their approach toward sexual assault, arguing that 50% of allegations  were disqualified, which discouraged victims from coming forward. Bolton pushed for allegations to be more critically examined before they were disqualified.

Resources for prevention or for victims of sexual assault were hard to find. Pamphlets on how to prevent sexual assault offered common-sense tips: “Lock your house and car doors” and “Avoid walking alone.” Though sound advice for anyone, this would not aid in true prevention or help victims. It was pamphlets such as these that inspired Bolton to act. Women, she argued, “are tired of hearing that the way to prevent rape is to keep their car doors locked….” In her letter to Sheriff Purdy, Bolton wrote: “the issue is the same as if you, Sheriff Purdy, were beaten in your home by an intruder because you forgot to lock the door—you wouldn’t be grilled as to why you didn’t lock your door.”

Frustrated with the state of help available for victims, Roxcy organized the Protest March Against Crimes of Rape held on October 4, 1971.

Permit from the City of Miami for the Protest March Against Crimes of Rape, October 4, 1971.

Bolton led protesters in making demands to Chief Garmire of the Miami Police Department (MPD). The first demand Bolton and her marchers made was that the MPD promptly devise and implement ways to provide necessary protection for women against sexual assault. Bolton also called for more foot and scooter patrols on Miami streets, sodium lights to create a safer environment, more police call-in boxes and a hotline number to report all serious crime. If a crime related to sexual assault, it had to immediately be switched to a female officer, and female officers must also be present at any interrogations of victims. And finally, Bolton’s last demand: the police department must immediately investigate and rapidly process complaints.

Demands made to Chief Garmire from the leadership of the March Against Rape, October 2, 1971.

Some of these demands did end up being implemented. But it was not enough for Bolton. In her letter to Sheriff Purdy written on October 10, 1973, Bolton said she was proposing the establishment of a treatment center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Police were instructed to take victims directly to the center, rather than questioning the victims. Bolton felt that silence among victims jeopardized their physical and emotional wellbeing, and a center dedicated to their specific needs would help encourage them to come forward and seek help.

Letter from R. Ray Goode to Roxcy Bolton regarding the implementation of a center for sexual assault victims, November 15, 1973.

Roxcy Bolton at the opening of the Rape Treatment Center in Miami, 1974.

In January 1974, Bolton’s dream came to fruition. Open 24 hours a day, the Miami Rape Treatment Center offered their services for those who needed help. Within six months, the center had given aid to over 300 victims ages eight through 74. The center was run entirely by professionals under medical director Dr. Dorothy Hicks at its time of opening. And not all personnel were women; it was said by staff that “by isolating the victims from males, you are giving the message that all males are bad.”

Patients who came to the center received the entire spectrum of care. They were given a physical examination by a gynecologist, a psychiatric counselling session, necessary lab work and a police interview. All of these services were provided in one location, something that was not available before, providing stability and ease of access for patients. The center was in a separate location from the rest of the hospital services, allowing for truly specialized care—a request made by Bolton and the Women’s Task Force. The center was innovative in its approach to care and rehabilitation and inspired the creation of other centers like it throughout the country.

Letter from the Lola B. Walker Homeowners Association to Mayor Steven Clark regarding renaming the Dade County Rape Treatment Center after Roxcy Bolton, February 1, 1991.

It was a while in the making, but with Bolton’s determination, the center was created and is still open in Miami. After numerous letters from citizens pushing the issue, the center was renamed the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center in 1993. Long after her Protest March Against Crimes of Rape, Bolton’s legacy as an advocate for victims continues on in the center for which she fought.

Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center dedication, May 7, 1993.

For more on Roxcy Bolton, see our photo exhibit and collections.

Letters to Governor Bob Graham

As the 1982 deadline for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) approached, pro- and anti-ERA activists sent letters to Florida’s Governor Bob Graham expressing their opinions about the amendment. Letters from all over the state and country arrived at the governor’s office. A selection of these letters have been digitized recently, and they demonstrate the passionate feelings U.S. residents had regarding the ERA.

Senator Bob Graham speaking at an ERA rally in Tallahassee (1978). After becoming governor in 1979, Graham led marches and gave speeches offering his support for the ERA.

A supporter from Sarasota encouraged the governor to speak up for the amendment to persuade legislators to vote in favor of it. “We are so close,” she wrote. “I am trying not to give up hope.”

A letter from Kelly Smith asking Governor Graham to speak often of the ERA to persuade the Florida Senate to ratify the amendment, February 14, 1982. Click to enlarge.

Governor Graham supported the amendment, but a pro-ERA activist criticized the governor for his “lukewarm” support of it. “I am confident that this Legislature will ratify [the] ERA, and send a state ERA to the people for ratification,” the supporter wrote.

A letter from Richard H. Samples, Jr. telling Governor Graham that his support for the ERA needs to be more vigorous, April 2, 1980. Click to enlarge.

Activists also employed creative methods to communicate their message with the governor. This Valentine’s Day poem requests “a more meaningful gift” for the holiday — the ratification of the ERA.

A Valentine’s Day card from Anita Andres urging the governor to support to the ERA, February 14, 1982. Click to enlarge.

Anti-ERA activists wrote letters equally as impassioned as the pro-ERA activists. A resident of Penney Farms in Clay County believed the amendment would have negative effects on American society: “If all of [the] ERA’s ramifications were fully enforced American society would soon become confused, frustrated and hardly recognizable.”

A letter from Helen Springer requesting the governor consider her opposition to the ERA, February 16, 1982. Click to enlarge.

Another opponent asserted that supporters were mistaken about the benefits of the amendment, saying that “If all Americans would be capable of studying it and visualizing possible consequences and damages ERA would cause, they would have to reject it.”

A letter from O.R. Havelka requesting that Governor Graham oppose the ratification of the ERA, March 1, 1980. Click to enlarge.

The governor’s position on the ERA remained unchanged. In the final days before the June 30 deadline, Governor Graham called the Legislature into a special session hoping to pass the amendment. On June 21, the amendment narrowly passed through the Florida House with a vote of 60 to 58. A few hours later, the amendment was defeated in the Florida Senate by a vote of 22 to 16.

For more information about the history of the ERA, read our blog Florida and the Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

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.

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.

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 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.

A brochure produced by the American Association of University Women encouraging women to support the Equal Rights Amendment, ca. 1974.

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.

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.

Women’s Equality Day

Today Florida joins the rest of the United States in celebrating Women’s Equality Day, an officially designated day observing two anniversaries in the history of women’s rights. Today is the 94th anniversary of the enactment of the 19th amendment, which struck down the limitation of suffrage on the basis of sex. It is also the 44th anniversary of the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality, organized by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its president at that time, Betty Friedan.

The fight for gender equality in Florida has a long history, with many bumps in the road. Today we pay homage to the women and men who stood up for equality before the ballot box, even when they faced indifference, outright opposition, or ridicule.

Ivy Stranahan, an early advocate of women's suffrage in Florida (photo circa 1890s).

Ivy Stranahan, an early advocate of women’s suffrage in Florida (photo circa 1890s).

May Mann Jennings, Florida's First Lady during the administration of her husband, Governor William S. Jennings (1901-1905). Mrs. Jennings was a co-founder of the Florida League of Women Voters (photo circa 1900s).

May Mann Jennings, Florida’s First Lady during the administration of her husband, Governor William S. Jennings (1901-1905). Mrs. Jennings was a co-founder of the Florida League of Women Voters (photo circa 1900s).

The movement to secure the vote for women was relatively unorganized in Florida until just before the turn of the twentieth century. Ella C. Chamberlain, who hailed from Tampa, attended a suffrage convention in Des Moines, Iowa in 1892, and returned to the Sunshine State eager to get something going. She sought out space in a local newspaper, only to be directed to write a column on issues of interest to women and children. Legend had it she exclaimed that the world was “not suffering for another cake recipe and the children seemed to be getting along better than the women.” She resolved instead to write about women’s rights, and to deploy the knowledge she had picked up in Des Moines.

Chamberlain was considerably far ahead of public opinion in the Tampa area of the 1890s, but she carried on her work with enthusiasm. In 1893, she established the Florida Women’s Suffrage Association, which associated itself with the broader National American Women Suffrage Association and attempted to inject women’s rights issues into the local political landscape. Susan B. Anthony herself came to know Chamberlain and her efforts on behalf of the women of the Sunshine State. For a number of years, Chamberlain sent Anthony a big box of Florida oranges during the winter as a gesture of appreciation. It was also a ploy to expose the inequality of agricultural wages in Florida between the sexes. Women typically made less than their husbands in this industry, even if they did the same work.

Susan B. Anthony, co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage association, at Rochester, New York (1897).

Susan B. Anthony, co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage association, at Rochester, New York (1897).

When Ella Chamberlain left Florida in 1897, the Florida Women’s Suffrage Association lagged and faded out, but the fight for equality continued in smaller organizations around the state. In June of 1912, a group of thirty Jacksonville women founded the Florida Equal Franchise League. Their goals were to improve the legal, educational, and industrial rights of women, as well as to promote the study of civics and civic improvements. The Orlando Suffrage League emerged in 1913, aiming specifically to get women to attempt to vote in a sewerage bond election. When the women were refused, they walked away with a clear example of taxation without representation to use in future debates.

As similar groups began popping up and communicating with one another, the need for a statewide organization became clear. In 1913, the Florida Equal Suffrage Association (FESA) was born at an organizational meeting in Orlando, with the Rev. Mary A. Safford as president and women from across the state serving as officers.

Caroline Mays Brevard, granddaughter of Florida territorial governor Richard Keith Call and a founding member of the Florida Equal Suffrage Association (photo circa 1900s).

Caroline Mays Brevard, granddaughter of Florida territorial governor Richard Keith Call, noted Florida historian, and a founding member of the Florida Equal Suffrage Association (photo circa 1900s).

FESA and its associates around the state met with mixed success. In Pensacola, for example, where the local newspaper and a number of elected officials were amenable to women’s suffrage, organizers were able to hold meetings and gain a great deal of traction. In Tampa, however, these conditions did not exist and suffrage activists found the road much tougher, at least at first.

As voting rights became a more hotly debated topic across the state and nation, demonstrations on both sides of the issue became more explicit, and admittedly quite creative. The Koreshan Unity, a religious group based in Estero, Florida, put their pro-suffrage stance in the form of a play entitled “Women, Women, Women, Suffragettes, Yes.” The Florida Photographic Collection includes images of both men and women dressing up as the opposite sex, at times to support the idea of equal voting rights and at other times to ridicule it. While humorous, the images are a reminder that for many the suffrage question was often at odds with the longstanding belief that men and women occupied distinct and separate places in society.

Students at the Andrew D. Gwynne Institute in Fort Myers stage an

Students at the Andrew D. Gwynne Institute in Fort Myers stage an “international meeting of suffragettes” (photo 1913).

Visitors at Orange Lake, possibly involved in the debate on voting rights for women (photo 1914).

Visitors at Orange Lake, possibly involved in the debate on voting rights for women (photo 1914).

Reception by

Reception by “DeLeonites” and “DeSoters” at De Leon Springs. Which side of the voting rights debate they are on is not entirely clear (photo 1917).

Photo poking fun at suffragettes by depicting women smoking and driving an automobile (1914).

Photo poking fun at suffragettes by depicting women smoking and driving an automobile (1914).

The 19th Amendment became law on August 26th, 1920, granting women the right to vote. Florida was not one of the states ratifying the amendment, and in fact it did not do so until 1969. Floridian women were undeterred by whatever ambivalence might have caused the delay, however, and women began running for the legislature the very next year. No uproar accompanied the change; the most divisive question was apparently whether women would be charged a poll tax for one or two years, given they had been unable to register the previous year. In time, women began occupying positions of responsibility in all areas of Florida government, although true gender equality was still (and yet remains) an ongoing project.

Women’s Equality Day is an opportunity both to reflect on the past, to celebrate the advances made thus far, and to renew our vigilance in the interest of equal rights regardless of gender. The State Library and Archives of Florida are particularly well-equipped to help you with the bit about reflecting on the past. Check out our recently updated Guide to Women’s History Collections to learn more about the materials we have for researching the history of women in Florida.