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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.

Women weren't invented in 1970

This week’s column consists of the eulogy that I delivered last week for my dear friend, former Senator Helen Gordon Davis. Other than her children and the rabbi, there were just two speakers, and the family asked that I address the political side of her life. Of course I made a couple of ad lib comments that aren’t here, and those of you who were there will read a few things here that I didn’t say then – one of which I skipped because I feared chocking up. The other is an addendum I made for this column, after the memorial service, when the Tampa Bay Times published another story that included Helen. The rest of the below, however, is the eulogy:

* * *

Let me begin by saying that I have another friend who is dying of heart disease. You don’t know her; she doesn’t live here. She and Helen are akin in being liberal Democrats, but my other friend emphasizes the negative and complains more than she acts. She is, indeed, someone who prefers to curse the darkness rather than light a candle. Helen was not like that. She lit candles all over the place. She delighted in lighting big bonfires. In fact, she set off explosions on a regular basis.

She did that for a long time, longer than even most of her longtime friends remember. I’m sure you read in the newspapers that she was Tampa’s first white woman to join the NAACP, protesting the segregated bus system in the 1950s that would not allow her children’s nanny to sit with them. This, she thought, was not only unjust but also stupid – and fighting injustice and stupidity became her lifelong cause.

Gene made a comfortable living and she could have spent her life playing bridge and tennis, but she didn’t. Instead, she volunteered with the League of Women Voters, serving as the Hillsborough president from 1966 to 1969. In that role, she helped make fundamental reform to Florida’s judicial system with the 1968 constitutional revision.

The key issue on which she worked was reforming the election of judges, which created the system that we know today as merit retention. Helen was not a lawyer, but both as a volunteer and as a legislator, she did more than thousands of professional attorneys to change the way that justice is delivered.

The good lawyers recognized that and applauded her. When I managed her tough re-election campaign in 1978, outstanding male attorneys signed a letter of support for her. Two were previous presidents of the American Bar Association, Reese Smith and Chesterfield Smith – no kin to each other – and a third was Cody Fowler of today’s Fowler & White. I think Helen would want me to add here that Fowler Avenue is not named for him, but rather for his mother, who was mayor of Temple Terrace in the 1920s. She bought a big grove of temple oranges there and developed the town. Especially girls need to know such history. Women weren’t invented in 1970.

* * *

Helen and other good people transformed the 1960’s South into our very different world today. I grew up in Arkansas, and I well remember that time. Back then, neither racial minorities nor women were considered full citizens. As late as 1972, when I moved here, jury duty was voluntary for women: a woman who wanted to be called had to actively go to the courthouse and sign up. You might think that was chivalrous, but it wasn’t. It was a way to keep juries predominately male, which was especially important in rape trials.

Imagine being a victim of rape, knowing that those who judged the truthfulness of your testimony would be entirely men. Imagine the dirty jokes that probably circulated in a jury room without women. Imagine being a female lawyer, let alone a female judge. As I look at the judges and lawyers and other female professionals here today, I beg you to remember that. You didn’t get where you are without opportunities that were brought to you by liberals.

The newspapers also wrote about Helen as the founder of the Centre for Women, but they didn’t say that she and Gene put up the money to buy the Hyde Park mansion that houses it. I remember during that difficult 1978 reelection, when we needed every supporter and every dollar we could get, she would turn campaign speeches into speeches about displaced homemakers and domestic violence.

I would try to steer her back to the election, while Gene jokingly told me that he hoped the Centre wouldn’t work out and he could get the property back. I can’t recall that he ever said that in front of Helen, though, and he was very proud of her. Indeed, it was Gene who turned the “wives lounge” in the Florida House into the “spouses lounge.” He just kept bringing coffee and hanging out until it finally dawned on the wives to change the name.

Helen also put up personal money for the comparable worth study that the legislature refused to fund. “Comparable worth” seems to have fallen in and out of our vocabulary in record time, but it does not mean equal pay: it means evaluating job descriptions on an objective scale of credentials and value, so that nurses make at least as much money as garbage collectors.

I’m not going to repeat the many other causes she championed that have been addressed elsewhere, but I do want to say that potty parity wasn’t funny. What drew Helen’s attention to it were the long lines at women’s restrooms at entertainment and sports venues, while men zipped in and out. And unless we held doors open for each other, we women usually had to put a dime in a slot to unlock it. The locks accepted only dimes, and if you didn’t have one and no one was there to give you one, women agile enough to do so crawled under doors.

This inconvenience and expense draws laughs today, but in fact it was another subtle way of reminding women that we were less worthy. Even today, if you pay attention at old courthouses and capitols, you can see that the architects planned twice as many men’s rooms. Women simply weren’t supposed to be there.

* * *

Helen was a dear family friend, as well as a political ally, and I never had a conversation with her in which she didn’t ask about her “boyfriend,” my husband Roy Weatherford. She usually asked about our daughter Meg, too, and knowing that Meg is undergoing treatments to try to have a baby, Helen sent me roses on Mother’s Day – just days before she died. She cared about the personal, as well as the political, and the values that she promoted were true family values.

I chaired the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame when she was admitted in 1998 – but we didn’t always agree. In 2012, when I raised the money to put up a billboard welcoming visitors to the Republican National Convention and informing them that Tampa’s mayor and all council members were Democrats, she termed it “a terrible idea.” I’m glad I did it anyway, and I think she was, too, in the end.

She also rejected my advice after the 1992 election, when, after eighteen years in the Florida House and Senate, she lost her seat. She lost it because we lost what had been a previously all-Tampa district, but under reapportionment, it was strung across the bay to benefit St. Petersburg’s Charlie Crist. Helen took the gerrymandering case all the way to the US Supreme Court – but I wanted her lawyers to build gender discrimination into the argument.

In the entire 40-member Senate, only two incumbents faced the prospect of running against each other: Helen and her longtime Democratic friend Jeanne Malcohn. Martin Dyckman, the Times’ political editor, recently wrote that the ultimate electoral result was that “two white liberal Democratic women [were] replaced by a white male Republican and a black male Democrat.” The action was conscious, as he summarized, “Everyone…saw that Malchon and Davis were being sacrificed.” And I ask, if that isn’t discrimination against women, what is? And how does case law become established if we don’t make the case about gender?

So there still are battles to be fought. In some ways, they are harder now because prejudices are more subtle and opponents more sophisticated. As the author of several books on women’s history, I am sad to say there is no doubt that feminism has in fact regressed since the 1970s.

It’s been so dispiriting lately that I very nearly gave up my activism last year, after the disastrous midterm elections. But when I sat at Helen’s bedside and told her that I was going to quit everything and just grow my flower garden, her reply was: “Don’t you dare!” So, like her, I’m going to go on lighting fires. You should, too.


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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