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Remembering Tampa Bay’s female trailblazers on International Women’s Day

Here are the stories of some of Tampa Bay’s most influential female innovators and leaders.
Published Mar. 8, 2019
Updated Mar. 8, 2019

In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re telling the stories of some of the most influential women who shaped Tampa Bay.

These figures were some of the first women in their positions. From healing people and inventing new products to preserving Tampa Bay’s history and leading local government, here’s how these women changed our community for the better.

Adela Hernandez Gonzmart (1920- 2001)

Adela Gonzmart [Times archives]

Called, “Ybor’s Matriarch” and “the gem of Ybor," Adela Hernandez Gonzmart was the granddaughter of the Columbia Restaurant’s founder, Casimiro Hernandez, Sr.

A child prodigy, she went on to train as a concert pianist at Juilliard and tour the United States and Cuba. She married concert violinist Cesar Gonzmart and came back to Tampa a few years after her son Casey was born.

This photo of Adela Gonzmart in Havana was taken in 1946. It was on display at the Ybor City Museum in an exhibit titled "Adela Gonzmart: A Retrospective." [GARY RINGS | Times]

The couple took over operations at the Columbia after her father died. As Ybor City changed, she kept the iconic eatery going. Gonzmart co-wrote The Columbia Restaurant Spanish Cookbook and worked at the restaurant until she died at 81.

She also was a fierce supporter of the arts in Tampa, from fighting to preserve historic buildings in the entertainment district to helping with the formation of the Tampa Symphony Orchestra (now known as the Florida Orchestra).

Gonzmart was the president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce for three years in a row. She co-founded the Latino Scholarship Fund at the University of South Florida.

Clara C. Frye (1872-1936)

Clara Frye was the daughter of an African American southerner and a London-born teacher, according to her biography on Tampa's Riverwalk. Frye cared for colored patients in her home when there was no hospital in Tampa for African-Americans during the early twentieth century. [Times archives]

Clara C. Frye is one of the people honored on the Historical Monument Trail at Tampa’s Riverwalk.

According to her bio on the Riverwalk website, Frye trained in nursing at Chicago and Montgomery, Ala. When she came to Tampa in 1901, “whites only" medical facilities wouldn’t treat patients of color. She spent 15 years treating patients in her own home at 1615 Lamar Ave. in Tampa Heights, performing operations on her dining room table.

In 1923, Frye purchased a building on her street and turned it into a hospital that she named after herself. She treated patients regardless of their race or income level. Her practice of treating patients who couldn’t afford to pay led to financial troubles, and the city bought out her hospital just five years later. It was renamed the “Tampa Negro Hospital”

One year after her death, a new hospital for people of color was built on Union Street and named “Clara Frye Memorial Hospital.” It was closed and demolished in 1973.

Steve Dickey of Dickey Studios in Tampa installs a bronze statue of Clara Frye along Tampa's Riverwalk near the Tampa Convention Center on Thursday morning. The statues tell the story of the noteworthy people and events that shaped the history of Tampa and Hillsborough County. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]

A wing in Tampa General Hospital is named after Frye. She was also inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Hillsborough County Women’s Hall of Fame.

Betty Castor (1941 —)

Betty Castor at the Wyndham Westshore Hotel. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]

A trailblazer for women in Florida in many ways, Castor came to Tampa in 1968. She was the first woman to serve on the Hillsborough County Commission and to be President Pro Tempore of the Florida Senate. She also became the first woman elected to the Florida Cabinet when she became the Florida Education Commissioner.

Castor served in the Florida Senate for three terms and co-sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977. She won the Democratic nomination during the 2004 Senate race, but lost to Republican Mel Martinez.

Though she spent years in the political realm, Castor also was involved in education. As the president of the University of South Florida from 1994 to 1999, Castor oversaw a number of changes: USF added 14 new majors and as well as a football team and marching band. She encouraged international education opportunities. Research endowment grew and the university also became more integrated with the community, according to Times archives.

Castor also served as the president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards for a few years. President Barack Obama appointed her to the J. William Fulbright Scholarship board. She also spent a few years at the executive director of USF’s Patel Center for Global Solutions.

Her daughter is Kathy Castor, a Democratic congresswoman.

Sandra W. Freedman (1943 - )

Sandra W. Freedman was the first female mayor of Tampa. [Times archives]

Sandra W. Freedman served on the Tampa City Council from 1974 to 1986, becoming council chair in 1983. She took over as mayor when Bob Martinez left to run for Florida governor and became the first woman to do so. Freedman served two more terms and left office in 1995.

While she was mayor, Tampa launched the Bayshore Boulevard restoration project and programs for recycling and water conservation. The city also opened a new City Convention Center and the Florida aquarium during her time in office, according to her bio on the city of Tampa’s website.

Tampa’s Sandra W. Freedman Tennis Complex is named in her honor.

Pam Iorio (1959 -)

City of Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio greets members of the crowd after finishing her State of the City address at the Tampa Convention Center Tuesday morning. [JASON BEHNKEN | Times]

Hailing from Temple Terrace, Iorio became the youngest person elected to the Hillsborough County Commission when she was just 26.

She was the second female Tampa mayor in Tampa, serving from 2003 to 2011.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio throws beads to kids during a Christmas parade in downtown Tampa. [Times]

Iorio oversaw a number of big events during her time as mayor, from the Super Bowl to the 2012 Republican National Convention. She also welcomed President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink in Tampa during a national “Town Hall Meeting” in 2010.

Related: WrestleMania is coming to Tampa. What other big events have we hosted?

Iorio supported the arts while she was in office, and stayed in Tampa to continue her mission, helping with initiatives at Curtis Hixon Park, Riverwalk and the Tampa History Center. She also became the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and was named PEOPLE Magazine’s "25 Women Changing the World in 2018.

Corinne Freeman (1926 - 2014)

Corinne Freeman in 1979. [Times archives]

Corinne Freeman was the first female mayor of St. Petersburg, serving from 1977 to 1985. She was a nurse in New York and a member of the Pinellas County School Board prior to leading the city.

As mayor, she contributed to the development of the St. Petersburg. One of her most notable actions was securing the land that would host Tropicana Field

“Corinne was one of those women who set an example for the young women coming along, at least in Pinellas County if not the broader area as well,” said Sandy Freedman in a 2014 interview with the Times. “And that is the most lasting legacy any of us could leave.”

When she completed her time as mayor at age 62, Freeman decided to jump into a new career and become a stockbroker.

Sara Blakely (1971 -)

Spanx founder and Clearwater native Sara Blakely welcomes shoppers to the grand opening and ribbon cutting for the Spanx store at International Plaza on Friday, April 11, 2014. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]

She built a shapewear empire after inventing Spanx. But before Sara Blakely’s entrepreneurial spirit catapulted her to billionaire status, she grew up in Clearwater.

Blakely attended Clearwater High, then graduated from Florida State University in 1993. After college she applied for a job acting as Goofy at Disney World, but was rejected for being just two inches too short. She found employment selling office equipment at Danka Business Systems in Tampa.

She was still peddling fax machines in Tampa Bay when she got the idea for Spanx. She traveled back home when Spanx opened a store at Tampa’s International Mall in 2012 and told the story of modeling the Spanx so her mother (an artist) could draw the product for a patent application when she was first starting out.

"I stood in my living room in Clearwater, and my mother sketched me wearing my products,'' she said. "That’s the actual picture that started it all.''

Blakely didn’t officially launch the company until after she was transferred to Atlanta for her job. Using her $5,000 savings, she started her line of slimming underwear, leggings and more when she was just 27. She soon landed shelf space in major department stores, and the product took off.

Blakely was named a billionaire in 2012 and appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine. In 2018, she was inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.

This report was compiled using Times archives.

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