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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.

Linda Vaughn’s Legacy and the UN’s Interest in Women

My friend Linda Vaughn, a USF graduate whose life was based in Tallahassee, died last week. Her pancreatic cancer was misdiagnosed as celeriac disease, and by the time that she came here to Moffitt, it was too late. She died back in Tallahassee, sooner than anyone expected. But I wouldn’t impose this personal grief on you except for the fact that I’ve long used her as a teaching tool: her work as a lobbyist offers case studies of how a good cause can defy the political odds – and also how a victory too easily achieved can turn into a loss.

Linda was an aide to legislators, including Pinellas County’s stellar Senator Jeanne Malcohn, but mostly she lobbied for non-profit organizations, both in Florida and nationally. Her most recent work was for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, but what I want to tell you about dates to the 1970s, when she was employed by the American Lung Association. The goal was to ban smoking in public buildings -- and everyone laughed at Linda’s naivety in thinking that ever could happen. There’s a reason for the cliché of the “smoke-filled room” in politics, as most people smoked cigarettes; many men used pipes and cigars. Walking into a popular watering hole such as Tallahassee’s Clyde’s & Costello’s meant waving through a literal fog of tobacco smoke.

Clyde’s and other such bars and restaurants were private enterprise, of course, and one could choose not to patronize them -- but public spaces also were full of smoke. The eminent House historian Allen Morris told of how insensitive some could be to those who objected to this addictive habit. The Old Capitol still was in use when Elaine Gordon joined the House in 1973, and its committee rooms were small and poorly ventilated. Because she was allergic to tobacco, Representative Gordon asked that smokers congregate at one end of the table. Dr. Wally Sackett responded by blowing smoke in her face, even though he was, like her, a Miami Democrat – and a physician.

That is unimaginable now, as public smoking is taboo almost everywhere. Linda and the American Lung Association had a great deal to do with that, and we all are healthier as a result. When the crusade began, though, no one would have predicted political success within a couple of decades, as tobacco had been a big part of the American economy since Europeans arrived and found natives inhaling its smoke. The multi-billion dollar industry had great power, especially in the South, but ultimately it lost to little giants like Linda.

Pinellas County Representative Betty Easley was a smoker, and she would die of lung cancer in 1994. During the 1970s, she also worked on an improbable cause: noise pollution. Fellow Pinellas legislator Peter Dunbar said of Easley, “We used to call her the ‘House Mother’ because she was a conscience helper for all of us.” A bright, witty woman and an excellent debater, she had little difficulty pushing fellow lawmakers to pass her bill limiting noise. Loud motors on racetracks, car radios with sound waves that shook the vehicle, boom boxes on the beach, and rock concerts with amplifiers that could be heard for miles – all were covered. Easley recruited audiologists who testified about the damage done to young ears by trendy bass sounds. Engineers came to Tallahassee to explain how sound decibels could be scientifically measured, and her bill imposed fines when they exceeded the appropriate level. Her elderly constituents rejoiced, hoping for enough quiet that they might again hear bird songs.

But have you seen that law enforced lately? Or at all, ever? To me, it’s an example of a too-easy victory. The public education that comes along with a political change is what really matters, more than the legislative act. Without follow-up from the executive branch, a law just sits on the books. To my knowledge, Betty Easley’s work never has been repealed, but laws and ideals can be killed simply through budget exclusion, and people forget that the reform ever was made. We need to know if a law has been passed, and we must insist on enforcement. That was the case with smoking, but not with noise. And it makes all the difference.

* * *

Whether it’s smoking, noise, or countless other matters of cultural customs and laws, the historical evidence is that rules will apply more strictly to women than to men. Many American places banned smoking by women where it was habitual for men, and one of the first offensive acts by Afghanistan’s Taliban was to ban women from laughing in public. Women’s clothing, of course, is strictly regulated there – and it was in early America, too. Colonial governments passed laws prohibiting a woman from wearing garments that were above her station in life, and some men actually went to court to prove that they were wealthy enough for their wives to dress in silk instead of cotton. Whether it’s a serious and continuing issue such as the right to terminate a pregnancy or whether it’s as frivolous as the length of a skirt, women’s bodies always have gotten great attention from lawmakers.

It’s not necessarily progressive attention, however, and you probably didn’t notice that March 8 was International Women’s Day. I saw a few references in the media, but we Americans long have ignored such internationalism, somehow classing it as leftist and therefore to be opposed by the patriotic. The current jargon from the right is “American exceptionalism,” a belief that the US is exceptional to the point of being divinely ordained. That cliché eventually will disappear, too, as people continue to realize that no one is special because of skin color, place of birth, religious identity, or whatever the many “reasons” used to keep humans disunited and at war.

Changing that disunity is why they named it the United Nations. At the end of World War II, when fifty million people died because of ideologies about innate superiority, we formed the United Nations to stop such craziness. Like the enforcement of Betty Easley’s noise pollution law, however, we seem to behave more and more as though the UN has yet to be invented. An Israeli prime minister comes to Washington to urge us to expand our wars, not to New York or Brussels or Geneva or even Paris, where the UN agencies are. And we unthinking respond to that closed-answer question: We ask where and when and how do we intervene in the Middle East, instead of asking for the opinions of other nations.

And we rarely ask the most serious “why,” which is the status of women. As long as half the people are considered inferior, we should not take sides between warring males. Instead, we should insist on personal freedom and equality. How can we consider Saudi Arabia to be an American ally when women there can’t even drive cars? Nor is Israel perfect, as orthodox Jews there increasingly regulate the dress and behavior of their women. That nation has moved a long way backwards from the days of Prime Minister Golda Meier, who must be crying in her grave. Democracy cannot thrive without the full inclusion of half the people, especially the half that primarily nurtures the next generation.

Yet some international organizations continue the struggle for female equality, even though historians seldom recognize the good work that they have done. The first international gatherings on the status of women date back to Susan B. Anthony and Queen Victoria in 1883. After formalization, thousands of women met every few years in Washington, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, Stockholm, and even Budapest. The meeting there was in 1913, and plans were laid for Paris in 1915 – but the war we now call World War I cancelled it.

After peace late in 1918, the International Woman’s Suffrage Association met again in 1920 in Geneva, but by then, Australian, American, British, and Scandinavian women had won the vote, and interest lagged. Again, it may have been a case of too-easy victory: The war motivated men to include women as voters, but feminism was not yet sufficiently developed to see beyond that single issue and especially to see beyond ourselves to others. Some tried. Carrie Chapman Catt led a two-year tour around the entire globe to investigate the status of women, but when the League of Women Voters replaced her suffrage association, such internationalist goals faded.

And then there was another great war and finally the United Nations. Since Eleanor Roosevelt forced attention, the UN always has had an interest in the status of women, even though it’s been simmering on the back burner for decades. Most Americans ignored UN-sponsored meetings of women in Mexico City in 1975 and in Nairobi in 1985 – but they paid attention in 1995, largely to criticize First Lady Hillary Clinton for attending the Beijing gathering. Twenty years have passed since then, with no more well attended meetings, but dedicated feminists continue to work on issues of equality. Thus on March 8, UN-related agencies issued their 2015 reports. There’s good news and bad news, but overall, it’s not as good as it should be.

The best news may be that the global maternal death has fallen 45% since 2000 – but that still leaves some 300,000 women dying annually from preventable causes related to pregnancy. Paid employment other than farming has risen from 35% to 40%, with particular gains in southern Africa. Women’s political participation has risen slightly, with five nations remaining that have no women at all in their legislative bodies.

Worldwide, 25% percent of girls are married prior to their 18th birthday, and the practice of child brides, usually sold by their families to older men, still is widespread. While 71% of girls now have access to elementary education, just 32% go on to secondary education. Two hundred million fewer women than men have internet access in the developing world. The gender gap on pay has not changed in twenty years, either in the US or globally. And one in every three women still suffers from domestic or sexual violence.

The joint report from the Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ends, “The evidence is clear: When it comes to gender equality, we’re just not there yet. This data proves that progress is indeed possible, but it is not inevitable. More needs to be done to fulfill our promise and ensure that every woman and girl has the opportunity to live up to her God-given potential.”


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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