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We’re still fighting for the things Ruth Shack fought for in 1976

With women’s history month upon us and with LGBT and women’s rights once again under scrutiny, we reached out to a woman who was at the center of much of Miami’s early activism.

Ruth Shack was a trailblazer, a politician, and a community figurehead. She was a New Yorker on her honeymoon when she and her husband fell in love with Miami. They found jobs their second week here, and she’s called the Magic City home ever since.

After two decades campaigning for female politicians, the civil rights movement, and the equal rights amendment, Shack ran for Dade County commissioner. She won, and quickly spearheaded the 1976 amendment to Dade’s anti-discrimination ordinance that added another class of protection: “affectional and sexual preference” (the term of the day for homosexuality).

That amendment was repealed less than a year later in a public referendum, with 70 percent voting for repeal, a charge led by Florida’s citrus spokeswoman, Anita Bryant (#Florida). Protections for gay individuals wouldn’t be reinstated until 1998. Meanwhile, Shack ran for mayor but lost, then went on to lead the Dade Community Foundation (now The Miami Foundation) for 25 years, until her retirement in 2009.

We’ve lightly edited this interview for clarity and length. We updated the story after publication to add additional biographical information.

Tell me about your early years as an activist.

I came to Miami in the 1950s, and realized that it was a sleepy southern town where women were relegated to secretary or housewife, with no respect for either position.

I started long before I was elected working for other women who wanted to get elected. We worked on the Equal Rights Amendment back in 1973, never did get it passed but…  sent some extraordinary women to Tallahassee  – Elaine Gordon, Elaine Bloom, Roberta Fox. These are women who made incredible contributions.

How did gay rights become a central cause for you?

The women’s movement came out of the civil rights movement, which celebrated the work of women powerfully. Coming out of the civil rights movement… and then being a pioneer in the women’s rights movement, it became apparent to me that the next civil rights issue was the gay rights movement, and I was appalled when a few friends told me about their inability to make it through this town. There was already an anti-discrimination ordinance on the books and all I did was add sexual preference [as something that could not be a basis for discrimination].

Some of the staunchest opponents to your work were other women. How did that make you feel?

There were women on the county commission who voted against it. There were women in this community who did not support the women’s rights movement. The expectation that women would stand with women was not and is not valid. People would ask me, ‘Wouldn’t I like to have more women on the county commission? I said “No, I want more feminists. If a man is with me believing that women deserve equal rights, I want that man sitting next to me. But I don’t want a woman voting no.”

What is your message to young progressives who fear a rollback of women’s rights and LGBT rights?

I have seven millennial grandkids, each remarkable in their own way, each different in their own way and each, I hope, alerted to the fact that whatever they enjoy now, someone fought to get it for them and they’re going to have to fight to keep it.

Change the legislature, change the Congress, find like-minded people who are willing to run for public office and give them the support that they need. That’s the way the process works.

I applaud the protests, the marches, the pushback, and I hope that that it empowers people to do the run for public office. It starts at townships, at cities, school board, county, state, and then on to national politics. Wherever a government is making decisions on our behalf, that’s where we need people who will lead and defend what we hold dear.

What set you on a path to politics and activism?

Before you called, I thought back to the moment when I first thought politics was what I wanted to do with my life – certainly not a politician because I was a girl and that’s not something girls could do. I remembered hearing a dreadful populist on the radio, Huey Long, and watching how angry he made my father. I realized this was something important. I was five years old. While other girls wanted to be Shirley Temple, I wanted to be Huey Long. I wanted to be where the decisions were being made.

It took me 46 years.

When I came to town, I was working in politics from the 50s, supporting people of like mind. Stuffing and stamping envelopes, walking the neighborhoods on their behalf, very much involved until the opportunity came for me to run for a position that I wanted to be in. I had been urged to go to Tallahassee, but I didn’t want to leave my husband and my family. But when the county commissioner opportunity came along, that’s where I put my effort.

When’s the moment you felt the most influential?

At the birth of my three daughters. Here I had the opportunity to not only influence or try to influence my husband, but I had three nascent women who I could bring along as respecting people, not only the men who obviously they will respect, but the women who do the work as well.

I just sent this email congratulating them for being the strongest women I know on International Women’s Day. Each took their own direction, each has been incredibly influential, and each has made me incredibly proud.

What was a low point in your career?

That referendum [on the anti-discrimination amendment] was a public rebuke. But then I got re-elected the next year, so while they disagreed with me on issue, they sent me back to represent them.

After three terms, I resigned to run for mayor and was not elected. And what I heard over and over again was, “You’re doing such a good job where you are. Stay there. Mayor is nothing for a woman to be.” There was this bias against the woman holding the ultimate position in town.

The idea that a woman should not be mayor, that’s no place for a woman to be, a woman can be a support but not be the chief, it’s something women feel every day, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing.

First of all, I am appalled that this is still happening and is tolerated. Women have strengths, women have smarts, and women should have influence. Women have somehow made it past the obstacles and they have made incredible contributions and I have faith we will continue to do that.

No matter where I go, it’s always the men who are held up as the exemplars and it’s the women who are doing the work. And that work can be anything from keeping their family together to keeping their country moving – not always in a direction that I would seek. I don’t agree with all women in power, but they give us the courage to follow.