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Gainesville’s forgotten history: Birthplace of the women’s rights movement 

WUFT News file photo, 2020
WUFT News file photo, 2020

Peggy Macdonald, PhD was working on an exhibit about local health care when she came across a map from 1968 listing the country’s top five most influential cities in the battle for women’s rights. She was surprised to see Gainesville high on the list.

“You have major metropolitan areas, Seattle, Boston, and then you have Gainesville, Florida, and it's just fascinating to see it on the map,” said Macdonald, the former director of the Matheson Museum.

The University of Florida was a hotbed for civil rights at the time. But Macdonald says there were two women responsible for putting Gainesville on the feminist map: Beverly Jones and Judith Brown. Both were already involved in civil rights. Jones worked for the NAACP, while Brown was an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality.

“Basically they found as women that while they're working for civil rights or to oppose the Vietnam War, they didn't feel like they were treated as citizens, as equals with their male counterparts,” said Macdonald.

Brown was also a law student at the University of Florida, back in the day when, Macdonald says, male students ‘shuffled’ their female peers.

“Imagine a lecture hall filled with dozens or hundreds of male students. These are men and they switch their feet loudly back and forth. So imagine hundreds of feet switching loudly. And it was a way of protest against the fact that there was a woman in the room,” said Macdonald.

Together, Jones and Brown wrote a manifesto called ‘Toward a Female Liberation Movement’, later known as the Florida Paper.

Peggy Macdonald, PhD is a local Gainesville historian and the former director of the Matheson Museum. Credit: Peggy Macdonald

“This paper addresses the fact that women have been funneled into secretarial roles in activist organizations and providing food, coffee, not policy. And this paper demands a change, demands that women unite with other women,” said Macdonald.

The paper also talks about the loneliness of marriage and the impossibility of a housewife’s schedule, running from room to room, cooking, cleaning and feeding the family. The writers tell young female college students they’re in for a rude awakening once they leave the classroom.

“What Beverly Jones and Judith Brown argued was that because these young women were college students, they were in classes where they are expected to learn and dissect knowledge, that they felt like they were treated as equals to men. But what they didn't realize is that the moment they graduated, they'd be part of this prison that women are in,” said Macdonald.

The paper was published in 1968 and it was read by women across the country.

In 1970, McGill University sociology professor Marlene Dixon wrote, “‘Toward a Female Liberation Movement’ by Beverly Jones and Judith Brown, that started it, if anything written started it. That paper just laid it on the line.”

Macdonald says there’s at least one thing from the paper that still feels relevant to today.

“On page 18, number 8: ‘equal pay for equal work has been a project poo-pooed by the radicals, but it should not be because it is an instrument of bondage.’ And of course, we still haven't achieved equal pay between men and women in the 21st century,” said Macdonald.

Macdonald says it isn’t exactly clear why Gainesville’s place in the women’s rights movement isn’t more well known.

“We still have a schism between whether something is local history or national history, and it happens that what happened right here in Gainesville in 1968 with the Florida Paper becoming the theoretical framework for the women's liberation movement at the national level, it has been overlooked. The women's liberation movement in general has been misunderstood,” said Macdonald.

You can find more of McDonald’s research into Gainesville’s feminist history on her website.

Áine Pennello is a multimedia reporter and Morning Edition news anchor for the College’s Innovation News Center. She has a background in video news and documentary and most recently worked at WCBS Newsradio in New York City covering local news and the tri-state area. She has also reported internationally, freelancing from Paris and Berlin during the Syrian refugee crisis. During the Syrian Civil War, Pennello reported from the Golan Heights while on a reporting grant from the International Center for Journalists.