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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 Story Behind the Story

Everyone knows that the story of the month – several months, now – is sexual harassment. The story behind the story, though, is that of female judges. I hope you noticed the one who sentenced notorious abuser Dr. Larry Nassar to so many prison terms that he will die behind bars. She is Judge Rosemarie Aquilina – a woman whose father was Maltese and whose mother was German. She became a citizen at age twelve and graduated from Michigan State University (MSU), where Nassar was a sports star, in 1979. But it’s being a woman that makes all the difference.

More than 150 women and girls testified that the MSU physician and Olympics official had committed sex crimes against them during the past two decades. Of all the reports I read and heard, the most compelling was of a woman who was interviewed on National Public Radio. Her family and the Nassar family had been close friends, and she said that he first fondled her when she was seven. Confused, she thought this must be a secret part of growing up and said nothing until her teen years, when she confided in a high-school counselor. The counselor brought the doctor and the parents together in a meeting with the teenager – and the parents chose to believe their powerful friend over their vulnerable daughter. It led to longtime estrangement -- and when the evidence against the physician began to pile up, the father realized how wrong he had been and killed himself.

It’s so sad for everyone involved – and even sadder that for so long we, as a global society, have ignored such crimes. Girls still are bought and sold under the guise of marriage and without regard to their own desires or ambitions. And a century ago, even in America, sexual exploitation of girls wasn’t necessarily considered a crime. I’ve written about this before, but it needs repeating: An early twentieth-century report on state laws by the Women’s Christian Temperature Union (WCTU) showed appalling disregard of girls’ right to sexual innocence. The WCTU studied state laws on “age of consent” – the age at which a man can argue in court that he is not guilty of rape because the girl consented to sex. In Delaware in 1900, that age was seven. Yes, seven!

Same Song, Second Verse

That is how male legislators “protected” females before women got the vote in 1920. Even then, many states did not allow women to serve on juries. In Florida, women weren’t permitted to be jurors until after World War II. Nor was this a matter of simply overlooking the subject. Representative Mary Lou Baker of St. Petersburg filed bills to grant women the right to serve on juries in the 1943 and 1945 legislative sessions, but her all-male colleagues – doubtless thinking about the presence of women on juries dealing with sex crimes -- did not take up the issue.

Florida women could not be jurors until 1950, after the 1949 session in which lawmakers finally passed a bill offered by Edna Pearce, a cattle rancher from Sebring. And Pearce was just the third woman in the legislature – three decades after Florida women were voters. Even then, a woman who wanted to serve on a jury had to jump through special hoops, actively going to the courthouse and signing up to be called. Do you think that had anything to do with men who didn’t want their wives to hear about what goes on in the real world?

We can only deduce that men didn’t want their women to know about prostitution or rape or the behavior that we call “sexual harassment” now, but didn’t have a word for back then. White men in the South, who made and enforced the laws, certainly didn’t want their women to know of their routine exploitation of non-white women. My decades of studying history, however, tells me that every woman -- every woman in the world, then and now -- has at least one story to tell about some man who tried to exploit her. Finally, with #MeToo, we are talking aloud.

Judging, and Not Judging

Most of those who argued against women as jurors – and lawyers and judges – based their negativism on their belief that women were too nice. We were, they said, too likely to give the bad guys a break. But I think that the way this objection actually is working out is that the law-and-order guys identified the wrong bad guys. They were perfectly willing to give a break to the rednecks who lynched and who bombed churches that killed little girls, while they wanted no mercy at all for those of lowly status, those who often were as likely to be the victim of a crime instead of a criminal. The courts were a system of legal terrorism, keeping people in their place.

This will seem a big segue, but you’ll see how it ties together in the end. It has become popular among right-wingers today to accuse racial minorities of voter fraud. I’ve written before about the higher likelihood of voter fraud to be among those who have enough property that they can register in more than one state. And to my surprise, apparently the Trump administration came to the same conclusion. I trust you noticed that the White House – without explanation – closed down its commission to investigate voter fraud.

But the point here is less about voter fraud and more about female judges. In case you missed the story, the former head of the Colorado Republican Party was in court recently for having fraudulently cast a ballot in the 2016 election. It seems that Steve Curtis, age 57, was so eager to see Donald Trump win that he cast his ex-wife’s ballot. She discovered it when she attempted to vote herself. A Greeley jury convicted him of voter fraud in December, but when he appeared for sentencing he accepted no blame.

“Not once in this 13-page report did he take any accountability, not once,” said the state attorney. “He blames everyone and everything for his problems… He makes homicidal statements toward the bench [and] the government… He minimizes his actions and calls it a paperwork infraction… He absolutely expects a slap on the wrist here today…”

As Judge Julie Hoskins began her sentence, the defendant had no better sense than to interrupt and argue with her. She would have none of that and said: “Do you want to go to jail, Mr. Curtis? I’m not planning to send you to jail, but I can quickly change my mind.” Hurrah for her! I’m not sorry to tell you, Mr. Republican Party Chairman, your lifelong sense of entitlement and exceptionality is going, going, gone.

And Following Up

You can join with others on this cause by marking your calendar for 5:45 on Thursday, February 22, at Stageworks Theater, 1120 East Kennedy. My friend Renee Warmack will present “Women Warrior Stories: Beyond the Shadows,” a panel discussion and networking opportunity. The panelists include a woman who was a victim of sexual trafficking, a firefighter who recently won a harassment case, an author on the subject, as well as the sister of the much-publicized woman who was nearly beaten to death at the Bloomingdale Library. Stageworks will provide beer, wine, and hors d’oeuvres with your $20 ticket. Renee is a longtime feminist advocate, and you can make a reservation at ReneeWarmackProductions.com. You won’t be disappointed.


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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