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Macdonald to present lecture on Florida’s Pioneer Women

January 8, 2020
By PAULETTE LeBLANC ( , Pine Island Eagle

Dr. Peggy Macdonald will present a program on "Florida Female Pioneers" today, Jan. 8, at Pine Island United Methodist Church. The program, which begins at 6:30 p.m., is sponsored by Florida Humanities and the Friends of the Pine Island Library.

Macdonald received her Ph.D. in history at the University of Florida in Gainesville, although she has been teaching at Stetson University since 2012. She attributes her teaching style, in part, to her theatrical background, as she came close to a double major in theater and communications as an undergrad.

"I find that helps in the classroom," said Macdonald, "because you have to bring the past to life."

Having begun as a reporter lent quite a bit to her investigative bent as a historian, as Macdonald said often the history of a subject can get buried and you have to dig to find something that may have been waiting to be discovered for some time. She chose American history in graduate school with women's and gender history as a close second, becoming the first Ph.D. student at UF to graduate with a minor in women's and gender history. Two of her professors, both of whom she credits for their influence, created a special curriculum just so Macdonald could receive her minor.

"It's a different way of looking at history," said Macdonald. "When I started my Ph.D. program, no one really knew how to deal with women, Native Americans, African Americans and the environment in history. You have mainstream history that focuses on great events, important dates and primarily white men. Historians were grappling with issues like, how can we write more inclusive history? But the best that was really happening at that time was writing about women, African Americans, Hispanics, the environment, Native Americans in the margins, but still not part of the mainstream history. There's more of a movement in recent years to make these other stories part of that mainstream history. Florida's female pioneers really does that. It's focusing on these women who are somewhat familiar, but whose stories still aren't taught. If there is any Florida history, it's taught in the fourth grade and there still isn't much of a focus on anything, but maybe Ponce de Leon."

Macdonald emphasizes that many of these Florida women, in fact, came here from somewhere else. Women like Mary McLeod Bethune, who came here and established a school for girls, that is now Bethune-Cookman University. Her mission initially was to teach girls and later became a broader mission to educate African Americans and help them graduate from college, which, at the time, was in itself seen as an act of resistance. Bethune was fighting to make sure that not only white women, but also African American women and men could exercise the right to vote.

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"It's this other fascinating and dark part of our history," says Macdonald of Bethune. "She had to battle the KKK, who came to her school, because she was teaching black men and women how to read so they could pass the literacy test. But this is not new, women have been fighting for recognition, equal rights and fair treatment for a long time. This has been taking place in Floridait's a really important history."

Another Florida pioneer woman is May Mann Jennings. In the early 20th Century, she leveraged her influence as the president of the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs, at a time when most women didn't yet have access to a college education and were barred from working professionally. Women gathered in these clubs to network, attend talks and learn. These women created some of the first public libraries in many Florida towns. As president, Jennings steered the federation toward working for suffrage, at a time when working for a woman's right to vote was considered scandalous.

"Jennings helped to get the most powerful group of women in Florida to support suffrage," said Macdonald, "so she's important, not just for that, but she also founded many boards, and was the leader of multiple organizations. She established the first board of forestry in Florida and worked to establish what became the nucleus of today's Everglades National Park. So all these women met together and it was seen as non-threatening, but they used all of their clout to make a difference in their communities and in their state, at a time when women lacked formal access to politics -- they couldn't vote, they couldn't run for office, and yet they found ways to get between the cracks and make a difference."

Macdonald said her audience is not only women who embrace these stories about Florida's women, but men often come to enjoy this history, as well as people who care about the environment and in many cases, not only Florida natives, but people who are new to Florida and want to know more about its history.

"Florida women's history, is Florida's history," says Macdonald. "It's a neglected aspect."

"Florida Female Pioneers" will be presented in the PIUMC sanctuary and is free and open to the public. No tickets or preregistration are necessary.



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