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Women lose footing in the Capitol

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


The story still circulates in Tallahassee about the time Betty Castor barged into the men's room.

The boys in the Legislature were cutting a deal. But they were not going to cut Castor out of it.

I was reminded of the story this week when Castor, a Democrat, said she won't run for governor next year against Jeb Bush.

I was reminded of the men's room story and sighed. Can you guess the reaction if that incident occurred today?

Ideologues would take to TV to scream over whether the men had the right to storm the ladies room, too.

We'd get one more example of how the middle has fallen out of American life, and how all that remains is triviality.

Like Katherine Harris' makeup.

Nobody ever talked about Castor's makeup.

They were talking about her way with power long before she ever barged into the men's room in Tallahassee -- since the moment in Tampa in the early '70s when, as a county commissioner, she was barred from the all-male University Club and quietly told everybody about it.

Yet now Castor, former education commissioner, former president of the University of South Florida, is in a kindly retirement, running an educational think tank near Washington.

When she belongs in Florida. In politics.

But she'd be an oddball. Too moderate. Not enough yin. Or yang.

This looks like the future of women in public life: In the place of the in-your-face Hillary we have the self-effacing Laura in the White House.

(I pointed this out last month in a column and the Web harpies of the far right flipped. They posted the column on the Web site of Lucianne Goldberg, where much whooping and hollering followed. You remember sweet Lucianne -- the New York literary agent who got Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky and her lover boy?)

All I was trying to do was express nostalgia for the days when women were making progress in public life. Not falling back.

Betty Castor, 59 and a member of the generation that broke down the barriers for women in politics in this state, has been our best example. From the county commission she went to the state Senate. Then to education commissioner. Then USF president.

Castor managed to rise because she was sharp and knew how to deal.

She managed to do all this with an honest, unaffected femininity. You were watching a woman comfortable in her own skin.

Her closest counterpart among Republicans is former state Senate President Toni Jennings, who left office this year after spending half her life in politics. She's returned to her family's construction business in Orlando -- another kindly retirement.

Jennings spent four years as Senate president. She was a broker between enemies. Nobody accused her of being a wimp. There was no doubt you were dealing with a woman, but like Castor, one who was straightforward and comfortable in her own skin.

Jennings, 51, also has had statewide ambitions.

May she not lose them.

Because one of Katherine Harris' other attributes is that she is the only woman in Florida who holds statewide office, as secretary of state. And since November she has been endowed with a name recognition, and political possibilities, that are downright scary.

If the flap over her painted faced illuminated anything, it was her own insecurities, her fear of how she would be received. So she hid behind the mask of her makeup, the stereotype of what she thought would be a sufficiently pleasing face.

May she get that ambassadorship soon.

For now, I'll sit back and enjoy my dream debate: women of the caliber of Castor and Jennings on the stage, marshalling their facts, spelling out their politics with the forcefulness of the men who preceded them, while nobody in the audience thinks something is screwy with the picture.

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