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.
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 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.
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.
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. 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 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. 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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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, 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 “international meeting of suffragettes” (photo 1913).
Visitors at Orange Lake, possibly involved in the debate on voting rights for women (photo 1914).
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).
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.
Florida Memory is funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services.