Florida Politics

99 years ago Florida led in women’s suffrage. Are equal rights still a priority?

State Rep. Dotie Joseph of Miami speaks to a group of women, community leaders and advocates from across South Florida during a gathering to celebrate 100 years since the 19th Amendment passed and urge the Florida Legislature to prioritize the Equal Rights Amendment. The gathering Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, was at CIC Miami.
State Rep. Dotie Joseph of Miami speaks to a group of women, community leaders and advocates from across South Florida during a gathering to celebrate 100 years since the 19th Amendment passed and urge the Florida Legislature to prioritize the Equal Rights Amendment. The gathering Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, was at CIC Miami. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

On Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of women earning the right to vote in August 1920, a modest group of community leaders, activists and elected officials faced a near-empty room in downtown Miami.

Miami Rep. Dotie Joseph, a Democrat, wore a purple “ERA YES” pin and talked about the importance of Florida’s ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, a measure guaranteeing women’s rights under federal law that was first introduced to Congress in 1923 and passed in 1972.

“Over 70% of Americans think equal rights are already protected,” she said. “News flash: it’s not. This is not a complicated issue. That’s all we’re asking for ... equality and justice for all.”

Representatives from groups like New Florida Majority and the Florida Immigrant Coalition spoke broadly about injustices faced by women in South Florida, passionately speaking to a reporter and to a few cellphones streaming videos to Twitter and Facebook.

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The small meeting was one of a series of rallies and press conferences across the state, where women from Tallahassee to Naples to Bradenton called on the Florida Legislature to ratify the amendment.

Today, 37 states have taken action since it passed nearly half a century ago, but 38 states are necessary for the amendment to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

Last year Joseph carried an equal rights resolution to make Florida the 38th state to join, but the legislation was never heard in committee.

After the event, Joseph said the lack of support comes from a lack of understanding that women actually do not have guaranteed equal rights under the Constitution. She’s heard arguments from other lawmakers who say ratifying the amendment would be simply unnecessary.

“What people say and what people do is two different things,” she said. “If it actually didn’t mean anything, then they would have given it to us. The fact that they haven’t given it to us means it means something to them.”

I think it’s going to increase the conversation through the nation, and hopefully, those constituents can reach out to their representatives to get it moving.

Joseph will be filing the resolution again, she said, and Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson, of Jacksonville, will carry the bill in the upper chamber.

Florida is joined by Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia on the list of states that have not yet ratified the amendment, despite efforts from some of their legislatures. In a renewed push for the amendment, Nevada ratified it in 2017 and Illinois followed suit in 2018.

In order to integrate Nevada, Illinois and a potential third state’s ratification, Congress must eliminate the original deadline. There are two bills pending in Congress to do so.

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While Florida is late to ratify the amendment, the state has carved out a place for itself in the history of the women’s suffrage movement.

The movement in Florida originated in Tampa via Ella Chamberlain, who founded the Florida Women’s Suffrage Association in 1893 after attending a suffrage conference in Des Moines, Iowa. According to the Florida Historical Quarterly, the organization was affiliated with the national chapter, of which Susan B. Anthony was president. Under her leadership, the state’s suffragists launched their own votes-for-women campaign. However, when Chamberlain moved out of state four years later, the organization disbanded.

The movement was revived in Jacksonville years later and then in Orlando, where a small group of women attempted to register to vote in 1912, according to the publication. They were turned away, but their efforts materialized into an Orlando-based suffrage organization, the Political Equality Club.

Like many southern states slower to organize women’s suffrage movements, the effort did not have widespread support in Florida until the 1910s, when statewide groups like the Florida Equal Franchise League were founded.

Many women’s suffrage groups in Florida and beyond, however, often only supported the white woman’s right to vote.

That is until Mary McLeod Bethune arrived in Daytona Beach in 1904. Bethune was a black educator, a civil-rights activist and eventually an influential adviser to both President Franklin D. and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Miami also had a large role to play in the state’s activism for women’s suffrage.

By 1917, Miami had the most active suffrage club in the state, according to the publication. When men’s clubs popped up across Florida, Miami men were the ones petitioning for women to vote in city elections. News reports then said many of the “most prominent men of Miami” signed.

Around that time, Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, came to Miami to speak before the state association’s convention. The Miami Herald then called her “one of the greatest women America has ever produced,” and called her speech “one of the wittiest, wisest and sanest expressions of the suffrage arguments.”

After a few failed attempts at statewide suffrage during the legislative session, lawmakers in Tallahassee passed several local bills in 1917 to give women the right to vote in towns like Palm Beach and Pass-a-Grille, near St. Petersburg.

When the Legislature convened the next year, lawmakers voted to give suffrage to women in more municipalities, like DeLand and Daytona Beach. But as the federal suffrage amendment was submitted to states for a vote, the delegation in Tallahassee was slow to respond, and then-governor Sidney Catts refused to call a special session to vote on it.

The Legislature never voted on it, and Florida became the only state to take no action on what was known as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” In 1920, many states ratified the amendment and it was declared part of the U.S. Constitution. Because it invalidated state laws, women in Florida were permitted to vote in the general election in 1920.

Joseph said Florida is late to prioritizing equal rights for women because leadership in Tallahassee assumes women are equal under law. At the end of session last year, Joseph said she met with House Speaker José Oliva, of Miami Lakes, who told her he was “definitely open to it” but not that familiar with the provisions of the amendment, and why women would need it.

Joseph said, as an attorney, she understands the nuances under the law. Gender discrimination falls at a lower level of scrutiny under judicial review, whereas the amendment would force courts to treat gender discrimination cases with “strict scrutiny.” Other issues like gender pay gaps and employment discrimination follow suit.

“Florida is in competition to be one of the last states to ratify ... I’m competitive, so I hope it will be us,” she said. “We’re doing our darnedest. And we’re thinking about different strategies as we organize around this issue.”

Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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