Women leaders discuss challenges, Florida politics
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg welcomed five prominent female political leaders with local ties to campus Tuesday to discuss “Women and Politics in Florida.”
Despite the school becoming embroiled in proposed state legislation that many believe harm diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, the panel didn’t broach the subject until the end of the meeting. Instead, the discussion focused on challenges faced when running for office and once elected.
The USF St. Petersburg Center for Civic Engagement, USF Florida Studies Program and the campus student government hosted the intimate event. The panel featured Congresswoman Kathy Castor; Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters; Caprice Edmond, school board member; Christina Diamond, executive director of Ruth’s List Florida; and Pam McAloon, Republican Party of Florida state committeewoman.
Dr. Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, Duckwall Professor of Florida Studies, moderated the discussion. McAloon noted many women find politics intimidating and channeled former President Franklin D. Roosevelt by relaying, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
“Well, ladies, we’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen,” McAllon added. “I think we can tolerate the heat. So, let’s go for it.”
Castor said that although there is now more parental equity, much of that responsibility still falls on young mothers. She noted that people still frequently ask women why they leave their children at home to run for office and wondered why men don’t face the same questions.
Ruth’s List recruits, trains and promotes pro-choice Democratic women candidates. Diamond explained that it often takes them years to decide to run for office, and they typically only make that decision if they like their odds of winning.
She said that is due to the accompanying sacrifices and current career and childcare concerns.
“I can tell you working with male candidates, it’s just a different level of confidence,” Diamond said. “There’s just an entirely different thought process when you’re a woman who wants to run for office than what I see on the male side.”
Challenges extend well beyond the campaign, and Peters told attendees that a female representative has never served as Florida’s Speaker of the House. She also expressed her disappointment that women did not receive any state leadership positions this year, despite 25 openings.
While she relayed harrowing personal attacks her family endured during legislative campaigns, Peters also called serving her community the most rewarding job she has ever had “or ever dreamed of having.”
“My work in mental health and addiction has just given me so much joy and satisfaction,” Peters added. “Just the idea that I can help the world be a better place before I leave it, that it’s better than when I grew up in it.”
Diamond said female politicians offer a unique perspective and tend to focus on issues close to their hearts. Edmonds expressed the increased responsibility of being the school board’s only minority member.
She noted Pinellas County’s diversity and said her lived experiences shape the way she advocates. Edmonds hopes to help people understand her thought process without becoming offensive or overbearing.
“That is another tight corner that I get pushed in because it’s like, ‘you know, this isn’t good for all kids,'” she said.
She later noted members typically vote unanimously, despite the board’s diversity. Peters said the commission governs similarly, and relayed that she has never felt gender discrimination among her local colleagues.
However, McAloon asked attendees if they believed politics divided the nation, and nearly all raised their hands. Castor said that while a bipartisan women’s congressional softball team helps build bridges – they play against the press corps – politicians must typically take the initiative to work across the aisle.
She expounded on a previous statement by Edmonds and said, “you can have all the passion in the world, but you’re not going to be persuasive unless you can convince people with some facts.”
Peters said the State Legislature is more unified than people realize. She blamed social media and the press for focusing on divisive issues “because that’s what sells.”
Although Castor typically agrees with that sentiment, she noted the governor is running for president – and using disagreements and discord to build a platform.
“I go out across the community,” Castor said. “They don’t understand why, rather than the affordability crisis, the cost of housing and the cost of insurance, that those aren’t the conversations at the … press conferences.
“Rather than going into books and gender and things. Generally, I think people want the same things, but I think there are some issues now – reproductive rights – that the governor has a particularly large megaphone on; and it’s causing a source of concern, and people feel that tugging apart.”