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Inspiring Change: Pioneering Women Open Doors

Published: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 at 3:25 a.m. Last Modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 at 3:25 a.m.

One would think that we shouldn’t need a Woman’s Equality Day in 2014. Yet here we are, on the day, thinking about the inequalities that remain and wondering how this year’s theme, “Inspiring Change,” fits in our generation.

We know many people think of Polk County as a place led by the good ol’ boys. And that might be true. But look around you and you’ll see many women high in the ranks of our local institutions, leading companies and organizations without giving equality a second thought. Some of them have been mentored by the good ol’ boys; others have made it on their own. Most of them have inspired change in one field or another.

Looking back, here are a few who should be celebrated for making a difference:

Lois Cowles Harrison, a civic leader, philanthropist and women’s rights activist who received the Polk County League of Women Voters “Influential Woman of the 20th Century” award in 2011. Harrison was actively involved in women’s rights, even chairing the National League of Women Voters’ Equal Rights Amendment Committee in the 1970s. She worked with everything from Planned Parenthood to the arts, trying to ensure equality for all.

Sarah McKay, who was recognized as a “Great Floridian” in 2010 for her “immeasurable impact on her home community of Lakeland, and throughout the state, with her contributions in business, cultural and civic endeavors, educational initiatives, and philanthropy,” according to a statement from Secretary of State Kurt Browning. She also was recognized for starting the archives center, which houses citrus, Methodist and historical collections, at Florida Southern College.

Peggy Brown, a community leader who served as Lakeland mayor and on the City Commission for more than 20 years. In addition to being a savvy civic leader, she also was known as the Cookie Commissioner because she loved to bake sweets and pass them out at city gatherings, and as a driving force behind using flowers to beautify the city. The Peggy Brown Center in Lake Mirror Park is named in her honor.

Hazel Haley, who taught in the same classroom at Lakeland High School for 52 of her 67 years there. She taught many generations of Lakelanders and was respected by all.

Paula Dockery, of a younger generation, but still a pioneer for her devotion to doing the right thing instead of blowing with the wind. The former Florida senator remains active in a number of good causes, including preserving Colt Creek State Park in North Lakeland. She was happy running other people’s campaigns and never intended to run for office, she says. “It was hard to find candidates to run for that House seat because a Republican had never won, and those who ran were only getting 32 percent to 38 percent of the vote. I wanted to prove it could be done and pave the way for others.” She takes after a woman she admired for her tenacity, Margaret Thatcher.

The women above are some of the pioneers in Polk County. They have or had influence in many areas and probably opened some doors for the power brokers of today:

Elaine Thompson and Ann Barnhart, CEOs of Lakeland Regional Medical Center and Heart of Florida Hospital in Haines City, respectively.

Kathryn LeRoy, Eileen Holden, Anne Kerr, Ava Parker and Rebecca McDonnell, all leaders in education.

Katrina Lunsford and Bonnie Parker, both in the banking industry.

Ana Wood, head of the county’s solid waste and recycling.

Ana Rivera, Kathleen Munson, Laura Hawley and Tina Johnson, all business leaders.

They, in turn, opened doors for some of today’s younger professionals, women like Sara Roberts, head of Polk Vision; Ashley Miller, volunteer coordinator at VISTE; and Katie Worthington, executive director of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce.

We’ve come far, even though Florida has yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment so it one day might be added to the U.S. Constitution. Those who support it say it’s needed to serve as a remedy against the gender bias that still exists. We agree. It’s time to eliminate all vestiges of discrimination so we no longer need to focus on women’s equality because women will be hired into positions of power, make the same amount of money and garner the same respect.

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