Doris Weatherford knows all about Florida’s female trailblazers. In fact, some might argue she is one.
She earned her place in the Sunshine State’s hallowed hall of women’s history by chronicling it, documenting everything from the achievements of the women in Florida’s early Native American tribes to matriarchs championing the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to those reaching for the stars in space travel.
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“They Dared to Dream: Florida Women Who Shaped History,” published in 2015, aims to empower and celebrate women by revisiting what they did to make strides in gender equality, according to the Florida Commission on the Status of Women Foundation, Inc.
Weatherford said she’s teaching the history that was never taught to her.
“The thing to remember about both of these books is that they are histories of Florida or histories of Tampa (in my other book “Real Women of Tampa and Hillsborough County”). They are not biographies of women; they are histories that highlight women’s roles,” Weatherford said.
The erasure of women’s past accomplishments is something Weatherford noticed in the classroom, as both a student and later, a teacher. It’s where she became inspired to write women’s history books after attending a particularly enlightening Harvard summer session course on immigration as a student.
“He made the statement one day that men adjusted to America faster than women ... And I raised my hand... and said, ‘What about women like my Norwegian and German grandmothers who got jobs in American homes? They were learning the language from the inside, they would learn what Americans ate, what they wore. Would they adjust a lot faster than, say, a Slavic man who’s working in steel mills with other Slavs?” Weatherford said. “And he looked at me like the thought never crossed his mind.”
After that, she decided to go to one of the largest libraries to find a book on women who immigrated to the U.S. and couldn’t find one. So, she wrote it herself.
“There were books on immigrants, there were books on women, but there was no general book on the intersection. So I wrote “Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930″ in 1986,” Weatherford said.
It’s a problem that pervaded her careers, both in education and politics. Weatherford said when she taught high school in Massachusetts, she was the only woman in the history department. During her last evaluation with the school’s supervisor, he checked off excellent on every box but didn’t rehire her.
“Turned out the reason he wanted to get rid of me was because they needed a new (athletic) coach,” said Weatherford, explaining sports coaches often doubled as history teachers. “And they thought anybody who could read a book could teach history. That is far from true, but it has been the attitude for way too long in education... For a long, long time, women’s history wasn’t taught because history wasn’t taught a sensible way.”
Since her first book, she’s delved into the history of Florida as shaped by women.
And according to her, while the state has made great strides when it comes to gender equality, it could’ve been — and still can be — faster with its progress.
“I think we need more organizing and especially more political action,” Weatherford said. “I am very distressed about the number of women being elected (in) office who are anti-feminist, who pander to men, who don’t stand up for other women. And I think the pioneers of the movement would be very disappointed that more than 100 years have passed, and we still haven’t had a woman as president. We haven’t had a woman as leader of the Senate. Here in Florida, we haven’t had a female governor... I think our progress has been very slow.”
She says everything comes down to politics and it’s how female leaders in and out of the political world can influence how the nation operates.
But the ability for women to move the needle politically wouldn’t even be possible without the 19th Amendment affording them the right to vote.
Weatherford talked about how the movement to vote sparked a lot of activism in Central Florida starting in the late 19th century. These efforts were led by women like Orlando Unitarian minister Mary Safford and Tampa native Eleanor Chamberlain. Beyond that, she said Chamberlain even lobbied for pensions for widowed women with children, before the days of Social Security.
She said women like them brought things to the table that men simply ignored, honing in on issues like women’s civic rights and childcare.
Weatherford impressed that, in spite of the fallbacks that still beset the fight for gender equality, the newer generations continue to champion and channel the activism of their predecessors.
“We need you young women and you young guys,” Weatherford said. “We’re not making as much progress as we want, but we are in some areas.”
To purchase the book, visit the University Press of Florida website.