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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.

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.

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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.

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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.
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.

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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.

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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.