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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

March 3rd Centennials

March 3 marked two important centennials, but except for short references in specialized news sources, it passed largely unnoticed. Let me tell you why the date is significant.

Some background: presidential inaugurations were in March until 1933, when we adopted a constitutional amendment that moved them to January. Communication and transportation had improved tremendously since the Constitution was written, and it no longer was necessary to wait from November to March to inaugurate a new president. Especially because the Great Depression was in its depth at the 1932 election, voters wanted to shorten the terms of presidents who were ousted. The amendment compacted the time between elections and the beginning of new administrations.

But back in 1913, Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration occurred in March. A Virginia native with the manners of a Southern gentleman, he became president of Princeton University and then governor of New Jersey. As the son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson was known for integrity and for his strong, but not strident, crusades against corruption.

Wilson was just the second Democrat to win since 1856, before the Civil War. (The other was Grover Cleveland, a conservative Democrat and the only president elected to non-consecutive terms, in 1884 and 1892.) Even so, Wilson won the 1912 race because Republicans split, with progressives supporting former president Theodore Roosevelt and conservatives trying to reelect incumbent William Howard Taft.

For the first time, all three candidates courted women’s votes, as by 1912, women had full voting rights in ten states, all of them in the West. Even in states where they could not vote, though, many women campaigned in this presidential election, with most supporting Wilson. That he had four daughters and no sons doubtless was a factor in making him more amenable to women’s civil rights than previous presidents had been.

Feminists thus chose his inauguration to bring public attention to their cause. Northern women had participated in political demonstrations, especially those of labor unions, for decades, but parading women remained taboo in the South – and Washington remained a city that was very much Southern in style. No one was prepared for what happened.

About 8,000 women assembled to parade on the day prior to Inauguration Day. Led by Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, several hundred had walked the 250 miles from New York. They held rallies along the way, and newspapers followed their route. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a drawing comparing their winter walk to George Washington crossing the icy Delaware. Even opponents offered some grudging respect for women so zealous for liberty.

Thousands more joined them in Washington, with the organizing done by Alice Paul; like Wilson, she was from New Jersey, but she had worked for Roosevelt in the campaign. Paul was educated in Britain, and she aped Britain’s more exuberant politics, complete with spontaneous street speaking that drew heckling crowds.

Washington police had no experience with thousands of marching women – or with the thousands of men who lined the parade route to jeer at them. Because of the long association between alcohol and politics in that era, more than a few of the men had imbibed more than a little, and some of them saw these liberated women as inviting physical contact. Policemen, who had never seen such unladylike behavior, tended to agree.

A riot developed, and women were attacked while police stood by. The mob scene was so serious that later investigation cost the police chief his job, and public sympathy swelled for women who were willing to take such risks for rights. The parade was the turning point in the struggle for the vote. Just seven years later, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution enfranchised all women everywhere.

* * *

It’s a bit trickier to put exact dates on events prior to the eighteenth century, when the calendar was modernized, but historians use March 3, 1513 as the day that Ponce de Leon left Puerto Rico to search for LaFlorida and the presumable Fountain of Youth. What many people may not realize, though, is that this myth was ubiquitous: over the centuries, natives from the Caribbean to California told newcomers of golden places – somewhere else. It was a favorite way of getting rid of conquerors.

Ponce de Leon had been a teenage sailor on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. He stayed in the Caribbean, and in 1502, was fortunate enough to marry one of the few Spanish women there. Leonor Bint Pedro was a native of the ancient city of Sevilla in the Spanish province of Castile, and their wedding took place on the island of Santo Domingo. Her family was sufficiently wealthy and venturesome to have built an inn there. Like countless men before and since, de Leon improved his status via marriage. Leonor Bint Pedro de Leon, on the other hand, was constantly pregnant and/or nursing during the couple’s first six years: between 1502 and 1508, she bore Juana, Isabella, Maria, and Luis.

The young family moved to Puerto Rico (“rich port”) in 1508, where Juan was the first Spanish governor. This job, of course, required much time away, and Leonor probably supervised the construction of their home, which was described as “a house…with tall battlements, metal within and without.” She and her children lived in this fortress because of the reality of violence from the native Taino tribe -- which did in fact attack in 1511, two years before Juan left for Florida.

Female governors, or goboernadores, were not unknown in the Spanish empire, and like other women, Leonor probably held down the fort when Juan sailed away on March 3, 1513. He commanded three ships and believed he was sailing for the rumored isle of Bimini. On board were at least two women, perhaps sisters or sisters-in-law. Their names were Beatrice and Juana Jimenez, but we know little more about them.

The 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon will continue throughout 2013. The state has entrusted the libraries of each county with materials for commemoration, and we should be able to expect more information – including on the women. Some were on every voyage between 1513 and final settlement in 1565, and they should be researched and remembered.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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