Women’s History Month: Five remarkable women in Miami history

Get to know five remarkable women in Miami history for Women’s History Month. 

Julia Tuttle

Julia Tuttle (Wikimedia)
Julia Tuttle (Wikimedia)

Julia Tuttle, known as “the mother of Miami,” was the driving force behind the founding of the city. She moved to the Biscayne Bay from Cleveland in 1890, using money from her family’s estate to purchase 640 acres on the north side of the Miami River.

Tuttle tirelessly lobbied Henry Flagler to bring his railroad down to Biscayne Bay, eventually sending him flowers and maybe even oranges as proof that a freeze that decimated crops in northern and central Florida had spared the region. She gave Flagler land for the Royal Palm Hotel and a train station and split the remainder of her holdings with him to help seal the deal and start a town. Tuttle was present when the city of Miami incorporated in 1896, but as a woman, she was not allowed to vote for incorporation. Her death in 1898 left her estate in debt, and her heirs sold the remainder of her property.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas at the the naming of the Dept. of Natural Resources administration building in her honor in 1985. ( State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)
Marjory Stoneman Douglas at the the naming of the Dept. of Natural Resources administration building in her honor in 1985. ( State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a journalist, author, environmentalist and feminist whose work vastly reshaped environmental policy on the Everglades. Born in Minneapolis in 1890, she was a voracious reader with a troubled home life because of her parents’ divorce and her mother’s struggles with mental illness. Douglas too, suffered a series of nervous breakdowns later in her life.

She came to Miami in 1915, when only a few thousand people lived in the city, and worked at The Miami Herald, of which her father was the first publisher. She lobbied for women’s suffrage early on, writing stories about women leaders, and speaking to lawmakers in Tallahassee in support of giving women the right to vote. She also advocated for the poor, helping to pass a law that required Miami homes to have toilets and bathtubs, which connected the poorest parts of the city to sewer and water services. And, her writing on abuse in labor camps influenced the Florida legislature to ban convict leasing.

Stoneman Douglas is most known for her environmental activism to protect the Everglades, which she began in the ’20s. Her seminal work, The Everglades: River of Grass, was published in 1947 and redefined the popular view of the Everglades from a swamp to be drained and built over to a vital environmental resource. She was a lifelong supporter of the Everglades, and in the ’60s, she founded Friends of the Everglades, which still leads the charge for conservation of Florida’s wetlands. Among numerous honors and accolades, in 1993 President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. She died at the age of 108 in 1998.

Polita Grau

polita grau
Polita Grau (University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection)

Polita Grau, born Maria Leopoldina Grau, was a first lady of Cuba, a political prisoner and a key organizer of Operation Pedro Pan with the Catholic Church, which helped 14,000 Cuban children leave the island. She was exiled in Miami on four separate occasions for her political work in Cuba.

Grau was born into a wealthy family, and her uncle, Dr. Ramon Grau San Martin, who served as a provisional president in the 1930s and 1940s,  made her the official first lady for state events. She was a political activist from her teen years on, opposing Machado, then Batista, and finally the Castro regime.

In 1965, Grau and her brother Ramon were arrested in 1965, for their work with Pedro Pan and she was accused of spying for the C.I.A. She also was accused of involvement in a plot to kill Castro with a poisoned milkshake. She was sentenced to 30 years in Cuban prison, and she served 14 years of her sentence. She died in Miami in 2000, and the city designated a portion of NW 59th Avenue as Ramon and Polita Grau Asina Avenue in honor of her and her brother’s work.

M. Athalie Range

M. Athalie Range (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)
M. Athalie Range (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Mary Athalie Range was Miami’s second woman city commissioner and the first woman to head a state agency in Florida. During World War II, she cleaned train cars, and afterward she helped her husband run the Range Funeral Home. In 1948, she became president of the Parent Teacher Association for Liberty City Elementary, and she led efforts to get the school a permanent building, hold full class sessions, and serve hot lunches to students.

Range was appointed to the City Commission in 1966, and was reelected in 1967 and 1969. On the City Commission, Range led efforts to improve the quality of life for black residents, including leading an effort to improve garbage pickup in black neighborhoods. She had neighbors bring bags of garbage to dump on commissioners’ desks after they delayed her measure to equalize garbage service. The commission passed the ordinance. She also worked out a deal to start integrating Miami’s police force, voting to buy the land for Alice Wainwright park in exchange for the hiring of a black motorcycle officer. That officer, Robert Ingraham, later became chief of police and then Mayor of Opa-Locka.

In 1971, Reuben Askew appointed Range Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, where she managed 200 employees and a $5.2 million budget until 1973. President Jimmy Carter later appointed her to the AMTRAK governing board. Range served as Chairman of the Virginia Key Beach Project, which preserved the beach, which was once Miami’s only beach for black residents. Range died in 2006, and Athalie Range Park and the Athalie Range Olympic Swimming Complex are named in her honor.

Roxcy Bolton

Roxy Bolton
Roxy Bolton marches for the ERA (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Roxcy O’Neal Bolton was a feminist pioneer and a tireless advocate for women’s rights. In 1956, Eleanor Roosevelt’s address to the Democratic National Convention, inspired Bolton to start working for women’s rights. In 1964, she moved with her husband, Commander David Bolton, to Coral Gables, where she became a fixture in the neighborhood.

Bolton founded Miami-Dade County’s chapter of the National Organization for Women, and became national vice president of NOW in 1968. She successfully lobbied local department stores to open their dining rooms to women. She championed the Equal Rights Amendment across South Florida and beyond, convincing Senator Birch Bayh to hold the first Congressional ERA hearings in 1970. She advocated for the establishment of Women’s Equality Day, which President Richard Nixon designated on August 26.

In 1972, Bolton founded Women In Distress, which offers housing, legal assistance, and counseling to women in crisis. Bolton also organized marches and spoke publicly about the needs of rape victims, and she lobbied Florida to strengthen protections for rape victims and more efficiently prosecute rape crimes. In 1974, Bolton helped establish the Rape Treatment Center at Jackson Hospital, the first rape treatment center attached to a hospital in the country. The center was renamed the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center in her honor in 1993.

Bolton also successfully lobbied the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to include male names when naming hurricanes. In 1992, Bolton helped establish Women’s Park near FIU to honor the contributions women made to the history and quality of life in Miami-Dade County.