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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.

The More Things Change…

The more we forget. I wrote this column in my head last week, eating lunch at the convention center (their food is pretty good, by the way) during the annual fundraiser for the Hillsborough County Commission on the Status of Women (COSW). Composed of volunteers, it is nonetheless an official county entity, with members appointed by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). Although I’ve served on a number of such entities, I’ve never been sure that any agency under the aegis of government should hold fundraisers, let alone at $75 a plate -- but I’ve had that debate with myself for decades, and we’ll let it go.

It was a lovely lunch and a nice ceremony that inducted this year’s additions to the Hillsborough County Women’s Hall of Fame. You can see who they are on a plaque near the front door of the convention center’s lower level. The Hall began in 2011, and after the first year with ten inductees, there have been three per year. This follows the model that yours truly set up when she chaired the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame under Governor Lawton Chiles. He hosted the first ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion, but subsequent ones were in the capitol, in the evening and free, with only light refreshments. But I didn’t intend to write about those details.

Instead, I want to re-introduce today’s feminist leaders to a precedent set in the past. The first speaker, BOCC chairman Stacy White, (properly) lauded the “14-year history” of the Commission on the Status of Women. Others continued with that chronology, and the program told us that the COSW “was created in April 16, 2003.” The program also spelled out its work:

• Children’s Needs in Hillsborough County

• Women’s Health Issues and Health Care

• Employment Issues for Women

• Issues Faced by Female Veterans

• Sex Trafficking of Minors

• Engaging Men in Ending Domestic Violence

• Empowering Women Through Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Financial Literary

• Food Insecurity and Healthy Food Access

These are important areas of concern to everyone, both women and men, but the list also is largely a reinvention of the wheel -- so please forgive me if I point to an earlier wheel. I’d like to acknowledge some of those who addressed the same issues with the original Hillsborough County Commission on the Status of Women in the 1970s.


Current Congresswoman Kathy Castor was on the BOCC in 2003, and it was she who pushed for the establishment of the current COSW – following the example that her mother had laid down when Kathy still was a child. Back in the 1970s, the BOCC was a five-member body, all elected at large, and Betty Castor became its first female member when she defeated about a dozen men in 1972. Her campaign manager, Fran Davin, joined her at the next election in 1974. I believe it was Commissioner Fred Anderson, whose wife, Pat, was active in the non-partisan Women’s Political Caucus, who provided the third vote to create a local COSW.

I think that was 1975, or maybe 1976. I’d have to dig out files high on a closet shelf to find those records, and Patrick doesn’t pay me enough to climb up there. (Can anyone send me an intern? She/he could learn a lot merely by reading papers that need to be filed.) Thus, I’m just going to trust my memory and the research I did for Real Women of Tampa and Hillsborough County. The University of Tampa, with support from the Duckwall Foundation and the Athena Society, published that in 2004. It sold out, but you can buy an updated version at the History Center or from UT.

So, the records in my head say that the chief activists appointed to the COSW in the mid-1970s were Kathy Betancourt, then a CTA leader and later a lobbyist for the city and for USF; Terry Casto Dean, a labor leader and now a city commissioner of Indian Rocks Beach; Dr. Ellen Kimmel, a USF psychologist; Sylvia Koford, an IT executive with IBM who had recently adopted a child; and Dr. Helene Silverman, a USF professor of education. Some of the BOCC men insisted on appointing men -- and may have been disappointed in their choices, as Jack Price and Greg Firestone especially were good guys. Our liaison with the BOCC was Glenda Fortner (later Kilpatrick), who went on to be the county’s first female lobbyist.

They elected me as corresponding secretary, a position that few organizations bother with now that we have e-mail and social media. I used it, though, to write fiery letters on the many issues concerning women -- some of which, in fact, have been solved or at least greatly improved since then. We worked hard to hire women as law enforcement officers and firefighters, much to the fury of the then-sheriff and the fire chief. We pushed for a domestic violence shelter, and we met with prosecutors and police to convince them that violence against women, including rape, was a genuine crime.

When Betty Castor moved on to the Florida Senate, she successfully sponsored a bill to fund work with victims of domestic violence by raising the cost of marriage licenses. Representative Helen Gordon Davis succeeded in getting funding for displaced homemaker programs – something that, just recently, a friend found valuable when the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women helped her start a business. Helen also used her own money to fund a statewide study of comparable worth that compared salaries for say, garbage men, with those for nurses and librarians.

Our Hillsborough COSW also worked on what now is called “sex trafficking” and was simply “prostitution” back then, and we made at least some progress at least for a while in getting the cops to arrest the men involved in these transactions. We were less successful at what was in fact our biggest goal: a downtown child care facility so that kids could ride with mom or dad to work and back home, and maybe even share lunch in between.

We did a lot of research on that, including polling downtown office workers and looking at potential sites. The subject of children should have been the least controversial of our goals -- but that child-care center didn’t happen, and hasn’t happened yet. So what did happen? Why did we not continue to work on these needs? Because we were abolished.

The Ax Fell in 1978

My daughter, who now is a law librarian for the Department of Justice, was four in 1978. I often took her along to CSOW meetings, where she played quietly with the similarly aged son of fellow commissioner Betty Jo Tompkins. Betty Jo was and is an active Republican, and you know that I’m a strong Democrat, but this shows how non-partisan such commissions were -- and still are. We women usually can work together without the anger and gamesmanship that characterizes too many men.

The year 1978, however, also was prime time for the Eagle Forum, the era’s trendy right-wing organization headed by Phyllis Schlafly, a resident of Alton, Illinois -- where an earlier mob of conservatives killed newsman Elijah Lovejoy for advocating an end to slavery. Schlafly used her Eagle Forum to persuade Republican women that somehow believing in female equality was tantamount to a lack of patriotism -- and Republicans would drop their longtime support of the Equal Rights Amendment at their 1980 national convention. Well-dressed and poised, she left her five kids with maids while she flew around the country telling other women to stay home and leave careers to men. She was effective, especially with men. I’ve forgotten the name of her top guy here (and I wouldn’t use it anyway), but he went on a crusade to get the BOCC to abolish the COSW.

Earlier in 1978, Helen Gordon Davis had asked me to manage her re-election campaign, which turned out to be a very tough race. I was too busy with that to care very much about the COSW, and the BOCC abolished it. And not so long afterwards, three of the five BOCC members went to prison for taking bribes from real estate developers. Jan Platt had replaced Betty Castor by then – and, as you would expect, no women were accused of this or any other corruption.

With the League of Women Voters as the primary pusher, we revised the county charter. To make it at least somewhat more difficult to buy a majority of the BOCC, we went from five commissioners to seven. We also changed the system so that just three now run in countywide races, while four are elected from defined districts. However, the reformed BOCC did not restore the COSW, and from 1978 to 2003, there was no local agency dealing with issues concerning women (at least half of the population, you know). Then Kathy Castor led the current COSW’s establishment, just as her mother had done a generation earlier.

This story of the original COSW ends with me telling Kathy Betancourt about my encounter with the Eagle Forum guy. Those folks always assumed – and still do – that feminists are anti-family. Then and now, I’m very proud of my family: my parents had six kids, and we all stayed married to our original spouses. Two have celebrated their 60th anniversaries; two have had their 50th, and the remaining two soon will reach that milestone. So, returning to 1978: I happened to be at a stop sign and saw the Eagle Forum man nearby. I called him over to my car and lectured him about families and feminism. Later I told Betancourt that I thought the stop sign was a divine suggestion. She replied: “No, you got the message wrong. You were supposed to run over him.”


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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