1. Florida Politics
  2. /
  3. The Buzz

Betty Castor wanted Florida to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. She’s still fighting.

The former education commissioner, USF president and state senator is at the forefront of a renewed effort to get the amendment passed.
Former Florida Senator and education commissioner Betty Castor, center, speaks during a Mayoral Panel on the Equal Rights Amendment Thursday in Tampa, while Linda D'Aquila, left, looks on. Castor was present earlier in the day when the Hillsborough County Commission resolved to support the ERA. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Sep. 6

TAMPA — The Athena Society’s leader gripped the lectern’s edges and listed the victories so far.

The St. Petersburg City Council had supported it. Tampa’s did too.

And now, 10 minutes across town, Hillsborough County commissioners were hearing why, exactly, in 2019, it still mattered to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment.

“I want to thank Betty Castor, who actually right now is speaking before the board,” Lorna Taylor said to the luncheon crowd. “We are waiting on pins and needles to find out if that passed.”

The women in the dining room, 170-some lawyers and leaders and professionals, unfolded napkins topped with a pocket Constitution. Most belonged to Tampa’s selective society of professional women, begun in 1976 to push for ERA ratification.

Amazingly, the mission endured. And Betty Castor had been there from the start.

RELATED STORY: Women still don’t have equal rights in the Constitution. Florida could change that. It won’t.

It all came down to 24 words, bound up in decades of partisanship and counter-arguments from another century. Congress had passed the language in the early ’70s, but too few states had signed on to add it to the Constitution. Florida lawmakers dragged their feet. All over this: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Somehow it was 43 years later and these women were still here, staring down a fresh legislative session, a fresh chance to make history. They drummed up local support, set up a panel with the mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa, went back to the grassroots.

The mayors sat side-by-side at the swanky Centre Club of Tampa on Thursday, awaiting introductions. Then Taylor bounded back to the lectern.

“I have a news flash,” she said. “The resolution in support of ratification of the ERA in Florida just passed, six-zero!”

All politeness shattered as the women hollered and whooped. A retired lobbyist pumped her fist.

The vote was mostly a symbol, and the road ahead remained uncertain. But the mood, for now, was giddy. And then Betty Castor walked in.

⋅ ⋅ ⋅

Castor beamed.

“Six. Zero,” she said, flashing two thumbs up.

So often she had been the first woman in a given room.

Hillsborough County commission — first female member.

State senator — first female president pro tempore.

Commissioner of education — first female Florida Cabinet member.

President of the University of South Florida — and on.

Was it frustrating, at 78, to still be fighting? If it was, she did not show it. She clapped a colleague on the back and gazed around the room, soaking in the collective power. On stage, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor — no relation — said, “It is the right thing to do and should have been done a long time ago.”

The mayor added: “The majority of people, when asked, feel like it’s already been ratified.”

Grumbles rolled through the room. Of course, the Athena members knew, it hadn’t. When Congress endorsed the ERA in 1972, three-quarters of states had to approve it, too: 38 in all. Hawaii signed on in half an hour, with dozens soon following. But a conservative media blitz poisoned the well, linking the ERA to perversion, aborted babies, female soldiers falling on the front lines.

Betty Castor, then a state senator, tried to win over her colleagues in Florida. After all, those were progressive days. She talked up fair wages. Women didn’t need a special platform, she said; they just wanted the same thing. In 1977, Florida seemed poised to ratify, despite fears of unisex bathrooms and complaints the ERA was anti-homemaker.

But the effort failed.

The deadline passed, just a few states shy. Castor was heartbroken.

This photo of then-Sen. Betty Castor urging her colleagues to vote for the ERA in 1982 was part of a display removed from a Capitol hallway after a conservative lobbyist complained. [DONN DUGHI | Tampa Tribune]

Even now the Athena members still sought something secure, embedded in the Constitution, that would enshrine the same birthright of equality as men. They knew laws could get rolled back, or left to expire. The 14th Amendment could be interpreted to ignore gender. They needed the shield of the ERA.

And they felt momentum building once more. Nevada ratified in 2017, reviving the fight. Illinois was next. So long after the deadline, no one knew what Congress might do if 38 states signed on. But there was just one to go.

Could it be Florida?

They started again, city to city.

“People will say, ‘Well, that doesn’t make a difference,’” Mayor Castor said. “It does make a difference.”

Perhaps, she joked, Florida could be on the cutting edge of something positive.

Betty Castor laughed.

⋅ ⋅ ⋅

That morning she had sat under the lofty ceilings of the commission chamber and listened. Proclamations honored suicide prevention and the 40th birthday of the alt radio station. Public comments veered from transit boosters to a “War Between the States” sympathizer to an anti-tax crusader who intoned, “May God have mercy on your souls.”

Amid this parade of civic engagement came the ERA supporters and their pleas. The Athena Society had been coached by a Republican senator from Illinois, who urged supporters to focus on those simple words.

The first speaker said the ERA could put more women in C-suites and boardrooms.

The next described female soldiers who protect a Constitution that doesn’t protect them in return.

Two quoted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. One quoted Warren Buffett to say economic growth lies in the untapped power of women.

“As a woman of color and a frequent victim of pay inequity, I will have to wait until 2119 for parity,” one said.

And another: “It’s time. In fact, it’s 40 years on.”

To all of it, Betty Castor applauded.

Finally, commissioner Mariella Smith read aloud those 24 words.

She said the board had already passed a resolution in support — in 1975, when Betty Castor was still a commissioner.

“Forty-five years,” Castor said to the board, her shock of red hair now on three TVs. She wanted to stay positive. “You’ve done a lot for women.”

Yet here she was, with more to do.

⋅ ⋅ ⋅

In the dining room, state Rep. Fentrice Driskell stood. “I’m going to need y’all to come to Tallahassee.”

Driskell, a Tampa Democrat, said she’s in line to carry the ERA bill this year, but not even all the women in the Legislature are on board yet.

Former Sen. Arthenia Joyner stood, too.

“It was my premier bill for 10 years,” she said, starting in the early 2000s. She knew all of the Tallahassee doublespeak, how politicians pledged support of women but wouldn’t support the cause.

She urged the women to meet one-on-one with their legislators. No form letters. Tell them something real.

Betty Castor nodded.

She had been lucky, she felt, not to face abject discrimination, beyond questions like, “What will you do with your children?” She had seen so much progress, as young women flooded universities and carved out once-impossible careers.

Still, she saw glaring gaps in sexual violence and pay.

It had taken what felt like forever to get here, just one state away. But no, the fight didn’t wear her out, however halting. It had felt just terrific, she said, to watch those votes light up in green.


  1. Vice President Mike Pence reacts during an immigration and naturalization ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) ALEX BRANDON  |  AP
    Katie Waldman, a former University of Florida student senator, was accused of helping discard independent student newspapers with a front-page endorsement of a rival party’s candidate. | Analysis
  2. Richard Swearingen, Florida's Commissioner of the Department of Law Enforcement, testifies before state lawmakers on Monday. Florida Channel
    But law enforcement officials are getting behind a “threat assessment system.”
  3. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, urges the Florida Board of Education to hold schools accountable for teaching the Holocaust and African-American history, as required by lawmakers in 1994. The board was considering a rule on the matter at its Sept. 20, 2019, meeting in Jacksonville. The Florida Channel
    School districts will have to report how they are providing the instruction required in Florida law.
  4. The Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach. JOE RAEDLE  |  Getty Images
    It wasn’t immediately clear how much Mar-a-Lago would charge to host the Marine Corps Birthday Ball — or even if it might do so for free.
  5. In this March 24, 2018, file photo, crowds of people participate in the March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in San Francisco. JOSH EDELSON  |  AP
    ‘Guns are always a volatile topic in the halls of the legislature,’ one Republican said.
  6. Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning says Fortify Florida, the new state-sponsored app that allows students to report potential threats, is "disrupting the education day" because the callers are anonymous, many of the tips are vague and there's no opportunity to get more information from tipsters. "I have an obligation to provide kids with a great education," Browning said. "I cannot do it with this tool, because kids are hiding behind Fortify Florida." JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |
    Vague and anonymous tips often waste law enforcement’s time and disrupt the school day, says Kurt Browning, president of Florida’s superintendents association.
  7. Tonight's LGBTQ Presidential Forum is hosted by Angelica Ross of FX's Pose. Twitter
    A live stream of the event and what to watch for as 10 candidates meet on stage in Iowa.
  8. In this April 11, 2018, file photo, a high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass.  [AP Photo | Steven Senne] STEVEN SENNE  |  AP
    "The department does not appear to have the authority to do anything.”
  9. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos listens to a speaker share an opinion about a city matter during a city council meeting at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017.  On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council rejected the mayor's resolution urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons.  [Times files] TIMES FILES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the city did pass a resolution calling for more modest gun control measures.
  10. Maurice A. Ferré at his Miami home earlier this year. JOSE A. IGLESIAS  |  Miami Herald
    He served as mayor for 12 years and set the stage for Miami to become an international city.