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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’s History Month and more

Every year Women’s History Month gets bigger, and I’m especially glad to see that increasing numbers of men in historical societies are acknowledging its importance. Despite the significant differences in Bartow and Palm Beach, audiences for my speeches in both places included a number of men. Both historical societies held their meetings in beautifully restored courthouses that date to a century ago, and I’m glad to see that, too.

I once served on the board of the National Women’s History Project, the California-based group that began this March recognition. The first proclamation of it was by Jimmy Carter in 1980, during the last year of his presidency. Despite Ronald Reagan’s lack of support for it or any other feminist initiatives, celebrations of women history soon grew beyond the founders’ fondest dreams. Now the idea is so widespread that it is taken for granted, while the Project is struggling financially, a victim of its own success. But unlike the world of profit, that understandably happens when we do-gooders achieve our goals.

The last organization that I addressed during the month wanted a speech on women in politics. I began by citing the fact that that men elected women to office decades before some of those women could vote for themselves. This was especially true of school boards and school superintendents – although a Kentucky county elected a woman as sheriff in 1885 and a Michigan county elected a female prosecutor in 1898. Both served until their state judiciary said they couldn’t. All over the country and on many issues, women had wins at the ballot box that were negated by the era’s conservative courts.

The first woman to win a statewide election was Laura Eisenhuth in North Dakota in 1892, before that state’s women had full voting rights. She was the state superintendent of schools, and several western states soon emulated this. Colorado feminists, in fact, were proud that no man won its top educational post during the years between 1894 and 1920. Education policy seemed a natural for women, and dozens won such posts long before the 19th Amendment granted full voting rights to all American women in 1920.

Other stuff your history teacher never told you

Audiences also are surprised when I tell them that every western state except New Mexico had fully enfranchised women by 1917, when New York became the first eastern state to do so. New Mexico made up for its relative slowness, however, by electing two women to statewide office in 1922, the first year that the state’s women were eligible to vote. Isabel Eckles became state school superintendent, while Soledad Chavez Chacon was the nation’s first female secretary of state. Lots of other women won races in 1922, and Ohio elected a woman to its supreme court that year. In 1924, two states – Wyoming and Texas – chose women as governors. Indiana elected a woman as treasurer in 1926.

Progress is not inevitable, though, and we went backwards in the next decades. The hardest statewide position for women to win turned out to be attorney general: sixty years passed between the first female governors and the first attorney general in 1984. She was Arlene Violet, and I had a delightful phone conversation with her when I wrote my Congressional Quarterly work, Women in Politics: History and Milestones. I seldom interview the subjects of my books, but in this case, I tracked down a phone number and called her because I had so many unanswered questions.

Arlene Violet became a nun at an early age, and her order sent her to college and then to law school. She specialized in helping the poor of Providence, Rhode Island, in the many cases that poor people have, but rarely can afford to take to court -- issues such as landlord/tenant disputes, unpaid wages, and other exploitation. After doing this for years, she knew there was a great deal of corruption in the state’s government and decided to run for attorney general. She asked the area bishop for permission, and he agreed – but he had not really paid attention to what she said. When he realized that she was not running for secretary of state as he had assumed, but rather the more powerful position of attorney general, he withdrew his permission. She resigned from her order, continued her campaign, and won the election.

What we elect and don’t elect

States have many variations in the number of offices they do and do not elect. North Dakota has the most, electing everything from treasurer and auditor (separate positions) to tax commissioner and agriculture commissioner and public service commissioners. (North Dakota, by the way, not only was first to elect a woman statewide, but also the first to elect a woman as Speaker of the House, back in 1933 – something that the Florida House still has not done.) The state that elects the fewest offices is Maine, where only the governor appears on the ballot. He (and so far, it has been “he”) appoints everyone else.

In Florida, we elect four statewide officials, but it was seven until recently. With the last revision of our state constitution, we dropped the election of our secretary of state and education commissioner, while combining the offices of insurance commissioner and comptroller into one, the chief financial officer (CFO). Powerful landowners prevailed in keeping the agricultural commissioner on the ballot, a position that only eight other states elect.

Our Cabinet – which is more powerful than that in most states – thus is composed of the governor, attorney general, CFO, and the ag commish. We gave up our right to elect the secretary of state and the education commissioner, something that I thought was a mistake then, and I still do. We now allow the governor to appoint these two officials – even though the secretary of state is in charge of elections, including that of the governor. Florida women also lost an important stepping-stone to higher office, as these offices traditionally were the first that women won.

Taking another look

During the Q&A at this speech on women in elective office, Mickey Castor (widow of Judge Don Castor) reminded the audience that we soon will have a chance to revisit this and other fundamentals of our state government, and her timely comment motivated me to expand on the subject of constitutional revision.

To put this in context, Florida’s constitution had not had a major review since the nineteenth century, and in 1968, progressive Democrats in the legislature undertook an update. It turned out to be nationally innovative. Among other things, the 1968 constitution created the concept of Sunshine laws, which outlawed secret meetings between elected officials. It also required financial disclosure from candidates and officer holders – something that caused a number of guys in government to retire rather than reveal their sources of income.

The 1968 constitution encouraged regular reinvention of government with future constitutional revision commissions (CRC). The first would be ten years later, in 1978, and after that, a CRC would meet every twenty years. Thus we had one in 1998, and the next will be 2018 – less than two years away. I hope we will take this opportunity to think broadly. Why do we elect an agriculture commissioner, but not the head of environmental protection? How about a designated office for health care or for transportation or land use and planning-- areas that directly affect our daily lives? We have a chance to think creatively, and I hope we will use it.

An unintended measure of the status of women

An unintended result of the periodic CRCs was that it provides an interesting way to measure the status of Florida women. In 1968, only one woman served. She was Senator Beth Johnson of Orlando, who had been the first woman in the Florida Senate when she was elected in 1962. (In contrast, the nation’s first female state senator was in Utah in 1896. Arkansas elected the first woman to the US Senate in 1931.)

The feminist movement made a great deal of progress between 1968 and 1978, and that CRC had five women – including two from Tampa. They were Jan Platt, who moved from city council to the Hillsborough County Commission that year, and Stella Thayer, an attorney who earned her 1965 law degree at prestigious Columbia University. The other three were Yvonne Buckholtz of Miami, who represented teachers in the Florida Education Association; Lois Harrison of Polk County, who was state president of the League of Women Voters at the time; and Dr. Freddie Grooms, the highest-ranking African American at Florida State University.

Twenty years later, the 1998 CRC had ten women, double the number of 1978. Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles appointed five of the ten, including Martha Barnett, who was president-elect of the American Bar Association at the time. The Republican leaders of the legislature, however, not only appointed fewer women, but also chose some who clearly lacked credentials. Moreover, although this was a numerical improvement over the solitary female commissioner in 1968, the ten women in 1998 remained a distinct minority in the 37-member body. We have a chance to do better in 2018 – and movement for fair representation should begin 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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