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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.

Why Title IX is Important

As if she didn’t have enough to do in her busy life, Betty Castor volunteered to lead the program committee for the Athena Society this year. The first one, for October, was on Title IX of the 1972 Education Act. That may sound boringly legalistic, but this federal law gave female students equity with male ones in all educational programs, including athletics.

Those were heady days. We moved from Massachusetts that year, where I had co-founded one of the first chapters of NOW (National Organization for Women). I wasn’t exactly a charter member here, but it was a close thing, as the Tampa chapter formed in May and we came here in August. In March, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment – which had languished in committee since 1923 – and women were on our way to a future in which we were equal citizens, entitled to an equal share of public goodies.

I also met Betty for the first time that August. Hubby and I registered to vote as soon as we bought a house and, of course, we subscribed to Mother Trib – as well as the Tampa Daily Times, an afternoon affiliate of the then Tampa Morning Tribune. The old Times was even more conservative than the Trib, and -- no surprise to me -- soon went out of business. Its management was clueless about the changes that the ‘70s were bringing, and although it had good writers such as Linda Goldstein, its editorial policy was so far right that the many newcomers to Tampa in that era chose not to read it. I hung on until it died, largely because it was reliable in the sense that I knew to skip the editorial pages and that -- if there was any news of the women’s movement that was turning the world upside down -- the obituary page was the place to look for it. Anything that mattered to Tampa’s feminists would be there.

Anyway, it probably was the newspaper that made us aware of the woman who was running for county commission in a crowded field of old style male political hacks. Somehow we learned of a campaign rally at Lowry Park, went there, and introduced ourselves. After just a few minutes of conversation, Betty handed us a stack of flyers and said, “Here – go hand these out.” It was that sort of optimistic and hard-working attitude that made Betty Castor the first woman on the Hillsborough County Commission. Especially in open government and in protection of the environment, she and Fran Davin, who joined her in 1974, absolutely revolutionized the county.

Betty always puts a positive face forward, so the four members on the recent panel discussion were upbeat. Two were young women, one black and one white, who had benefited from Title IX. Two were coaches, one male and one female, who also had benefited. The audience was charged up, too, with the best attendance in a long while. But the most insightful comments, I thought, came from the older members who reminded the younger ones of the routine discrimination that we grew up with.

Even highly successful women experienced such. Susanna Grady recalled how when she was headmaster of Tampa Prep and attended meetings about athletics with representatives of other private schools, the guys made it painfully clear that they did not want her there. They not only failed to give her one of the orange polyester jackets that they wore, they stayed at the Hilton and made a reservation for her at the Red Roof Inn. It was up to her to find her own way to the meeting place.

The female coach on the panel had grown up in Oklahoma. She told of how she and her teammates drove themselves in a van to games in Texas and Kansas, while the guys used chartered planes. The guys ate free steaks at nice restaurants, while the girls stopped at a grocery store to buy bread for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Several women remembered that their high-school teams had to use the gym or other facilities either very early or very late, while boys got the convenient after-school times.

I remember our NOW group tangling with the school board’s athletic director, who couldn’t see anything wrong with the way things always had been. We had a male superintendent then, and he felt the same way. Only threats of going to court got their attention: they did not even begin to comprehend that they should voluntarily do these things for justice and equity and fairness to half of the student body. Pat Frank and the late Cecile Essrig were school board members then, and they also were founding members of Athena in 1976. They had the courage – and political skill – to work to change the ole boys’ club that spent tax money unfairly. Voters approved, and now women are a majority of the school board.

* * *

No one mentioned cheerleading at the Athena meeting, but I think several of us are former cheerleaders and want to speak to that. I believe cheerleading requires even more discipline than other physical activities. A cheerleader not only has to be strong enough and agile enough to do strenuous routines, but the job description also calls for an ability to inspire others while masking one’s own emotions. I can tell you from personal experience how hard it is to smile and persevere when your team is so far down that it seems impossible to get up. Sometimes you’d like to hang your head and walk away from the idiots on the court or the field, but you can’t. That’s excellent preparation for life.

And yes, we cheerleaders had to buy our own uniforms. They were free for players – even the girls – but we had to find sponsors to buy our expensive sweaters and shoes. Our mothers sewed the skirts from fabric that we begged from the woman who owned that store – and yes, every mother was assumed to be able to sew and to have a sewing machine. And, unlike the players, we cheerleaders had public tryouts in which ability was less important than personal popularity. It was early training in the roles expected of girls and women – be nice, be even a bit flirty, and always, always smile.

I thought of Nancy Ford at this Athena meeting. She began the group in 1976 to support the Equal Rights Amendment. She brought celebrities such as NOW founder Gloria Steinem and actor Valerie Harper (“Rhoda”) to town to spread the gospel of including women at every level of economic and political life. Nancy ended her days still working for those goals, and I think she would be appalled at a small item in the back pages of recent news. It seems that the Board of Trustees at Tampa General Hospital had an election for officers, and every one of the five is a wealthy white man. None has experience in health care.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear we may need to get ready for another attempt to give this public asset and to a profit-making hospital corporation. Pat Frank and Jan Platt, the stalwarts who led the candlelight vigil to keep it public a decade or so ago, might have to do that again. Cancer has forced Jan to use a walker, but I’ll bet she will be there if needed. Pat wore slippers instead of shoes at a recent event at her home, but she still goes to work for the public every day. I’ve no doubt about her commitment.

But this all-male, all-white oligarchy at our public hospital shows that progress is not inevitable and that things can regress. The women who built Tampa’s first hospital, the corporate ancestor of TGH, learned that the hard way. Facing a terrible onslaught of yellow fever in 1887, these women obtained a facility at the eastern end of today’s Kennedy Boulevard. They called it Emergency Hospital and themselves the Board of Lady Managers. For the next several years after the epidemic ended, they funded and operated it themselves. Then, as often happens with successful volunteers, they found their efforts were rewarded with a takeover.

In 1895, the Tampa Physicians Protective Association pulled a power play with the county commission, which, according to scholarly research, “had contributed little to the hospital’s maintenance.” The medical association “demanded that the women relinquish control,” and even though “the nine lady managers angrily refused,” the guys managed a takeover with an entirely new Women’s Auxiliary Board made up of their wives.

That long was before women could vote, and yet another half-century elapsed before the Betty Castors and Fran Davins and Pat Franks and Jan Platts could surmount the barriers against full democratic participation. Now it takes younger women to maintain a clear pathway. It’s time for our daughters (and sons and sons-in-law) to preserve our victories, including Title IX. I think most political scientists would agree that today’s Congress is so much more conservative that it never would pass this and other legislation that brought equal opportunity for all. But we were young and idealistic, and we worked miracles. Why not now?

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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