There are many women who have made large contributions to not only Florida’s history, but to the history of the United States. This Women’s History Month, we’re looking at and celebrating their achievements to see how they paved the way for women today -- and to look forward to all that women can achieve in years to come.
Many women are already well-known for their accomplishments, but there are some you may not have heard of. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but includes some of those ladies.
According to the Miami Girls Foundation, Julia Tuttle is known as the “Mother of Miami” and is the only female founder of a major American city. Originally born in Ohio, Tuttle bought several hundred acres of land near the Miami River when her husband died in 1886. She believed the area could make a great city, but knew it needed to be accessible in order to do so. She met with railroader Henry Flagler and convinced him to extend his railroad south to Miami in exchange for land. Miami was officially incorporated as a city in July 1896, just a few months after the first train arrived there.
DESSIE SMITH PRESCOTT
Dessie Smith Prescott is Florida pioneer known for being not only the first professional female guide in the Sunshine State, but also the first licensed female pilot. She served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. She is well-known for her extraordinary knowledge of Florida’s natural resources, having hunted and fished in rural Florida from a young age. Her story was documented famously by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. She was later inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.
BETTY MAE TIGER JUMPER
Betty Mae Tiger Jumper was the first and only female chief of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. She was the first Seminole to earn a high school degree. She was also a nurse for the Seminole Nation, as well as the founder and editor of the newspaper Seminole Tribune. Jumper spent much of her life advocating for Native American culture and history, even being appointed by President Richard Nixon to the National Congress on Indian Opportunity in 1970. In 1994, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Florida State University for her work and dedication on behalf of the Seminole people.
Gwen Cherry was the first Black woman to pass the Florida bar exam and practice law in Dade County. She graduated from Florida A&M University in 1946, got her master’s from New York University and completed her law degree at FAMU. Cherry was first a teacher, then attorney and then became the first Black woman elected to the Florida legislature. She is known for fighting for the rights of minorities and women, and introduced Florida’s first Equal Rights Amendment bill in 1972. Cherry also fought to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday.
CHARLOTTE E. MAGUIRE
Not only was Dr. Charlotte E. Maguire the only woman in her class at medical school, she was the first woman to open a pediatrics clinic in Orlando in 1946. She was dubbed the “First Orlando Girl Doctor.” Maguire also served on the Founders Committee at the University of Florida, where she helped plan for the College of Medicine and also was involved in the founding of the College of Medicine at Florida State University. Maguire is also known for giving back to the community, having donated millions for medical education. She’s remembered for being a pioneer for women in the field of medicine.
Polita Grau, born Maria Leopoldina Grau, became the first lady of Cuba when her bachelor uncle was president. She was a longtime political activist, most notably opposing the Castro regime. With her brother and a few others, she organized Operation Pedro Pan in the 1960s to help thousands of Cuban children flee the island. Grau also became a political prisoner, serving 14 years of a 30-year prison term, accused of spying for the CIA. She later moved to Miami, where she died at 96 years old.
EARTHA MARY MAGDALENE WHITE
Eartha Mary Magdalene White was the child of a former slave, adopted by Clara White in Jacksonville in 1876. White learned her humanitarian ways from her altruistic mother. She sang with the first African-American opera company in the United States, the Oriental American Opera Company, briefly before returning to Jacksonville. She went on to teach for more than a dozen years, owned several businesses, accumulating a significant amount of wealth for the time, though she donated nearly all of it to her humanitarian efforts. Those included establishing an orphanage and a home for unwed mothers. White is also known for starting the Clara White Mission to serve the homeless and those in need in Jacksonville, running a prison mission and the Eartha M. M. White Nursing Home for elderly African-Americans.
ROXCY O’NEAL BOLTON
Roxcy O’Neal Bolton is considered by many to be “Florida’s Pioneer Feminist” and founded the Florida Chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women, and later served as the national vice president of the organization. NOW focuses on issues including equality, reproductive rights and ending violence against women, among others. Bolton also founded the first rape treatment center in the country at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami in 1974, as well as Florida’s first women’s rescue shelter, Women in Distress. She fought for making rape crimes a priority and also persuaded the National Weather Service to stop naming hurricanes solely after women.
MARJORIE HARRIS CARR
Marjorie Harris Carr is a nationally recognized environmentalist who founded the Florida Defenders of the Environment in 1969. She graduated from Florida State College for Women, now FSU, with a bachelor’s in zoology, and later University of Florida with her master’s, and became the first female government wildlife technician. Her work in the 1960s led to what is now Payne’s Prairie State Preserve. She also was instrumental in stopping the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal to preserve the Ocklawaha River and avoiding environmental damage in the area.
Elizabeth “Beth” McCullough Johnson was the first woman in the Florida Senate after four years in the House, paving the way for women in politics. One of her biggest focuses was on education and in 1965, she worked to pass a bond program to establish the University of Central Florida, an achievement she considered one of her most important. She was also a member of the League of Women Voters.