Marie Selby. Image courtesy of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Marie Selby. Image courtesy of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Five Female Founding Forces in Sarasota County

Five females who helped form the origins of Sarasota County and paved the way for the development of the city we love today

A city and its landmarks don’t just form on their own. Five of our most famous Sarasota attractions were formed as a result of the women behind the scenes. Mote Marine, Booker Schools, Myakka State Park, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, and the Ringling Art Museum each have a story behind them about one of four women who used their voices to help form the origins of Sarasota and pave the way for the development of the city we love today.

Eugenie Clark

Eugenie Clark is pretty much my hero and the best role model I can imagine for my daughter. Known as The Shark Lady, she was a pioneer in the world of marine biology and the study of sharks. It was her inquisitive mind and determined spirit that led to the creation of Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and paved the way for female scientists to this very day. In fact, my 6-year-old daughter still attends the Gills Club, a Mote-run community of young female scientists inspired by Eugenia Clark. This fearless woman rode sharks, wrote books and for National Geographic magazine, traveled the world, discovered and studied unknown species, and broke barriers along the way. What others wouldn’t do – or told her she wasn’t allowed to do – she dove right in and made happen. I mean, she dove with sharks on her 92nd birthday. It doesn’t get tougher than that.

Emma Edwina Booker

At a time when segregation was the norm and education for black children was minimal or non-existent, an angel arrived in Sarasota. Geared with a strong determination, Emma Edwina Booker paved the way through Sarasota, opening a grammar school and serving as both principal and teacher in 1918. Seventeen long years later, despite obstacle after obstacle, she succeeded in the development of a high school in Newtown. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Emma led with the ultimate example by pursuing her own further education, persevering fifty years until she earned her bachelor’s degree. No one can say she taught ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ She was definitely a doer and showed what can be accomplished by a strong woman with a goal in mind. Today, three schools bear her name – Emma E. Booker Elementary (where President George W. Bush was reading to students when he learned of the 9-11 attacks), Booker Middle School, and Booker High School. It is a name any school would be proud to wear as an honor to her legacy, the fight she fought, and the belief that every student deserves a fair and quality education.

Bertha Palmer

Visiting Myakka River State Park or Historic Spanish Point, the stunning beauty of the surrounding nature is impossible to overlook. But the person behind these preserved lands hides amongst the shadows of the slash pines. Bertha Palmer, international celebrity and Chicago socialite with royalty as friends, jewels and furs galore, does not sound like the person to give us our favorite hiking location. But people often surprise us, and multi-faceted Bertha is one of those people. At a time when women were shushed and the men made the decisions, Bertha independently purchased an exorbitant amount of land in Sarasota and became a force in the cattle and citrus industries. In her 60s and newly widowed, she traded in her tiaras for muck boots and got in the nitty gritty, developing new innovations for cattle tending and making her voice be heard, even when the men in the fields didn’t want to hear it. She encouraged her wealthy friends to winter in Sarasota and innovated cattle fencing and seawalls. She spoke up in defense of her staff and equality of their rights. Rumor has it that she was proposed to by kings and princes, but she declined and continued her philanthropic endeavors to become one of the most significant pieces of Sarasota’s history. She could have continued hosting galas in Paris, dining in castles, and donning furs and diamonds, but instead she used her influence to better our small community. Much of her land eventually became Myakka River State Park and three of the gardens at Historic Spanish Point are hers. Ranches and fields thrive with her funding and techniques in their infancy. Tourism developed because of her suggestion to friends. It’s safe to say that it is pretty much because of Bertha Palmer that you’re on vacation here today.

Marie Selby

Driving across the country, wearing sneakers, hands covered in dirt – it sounds far too modern for a woman living in America nearly 100 years ago. But this is Marie Selby we’re talking about. Despite her oil-wealthy husband and expected socialite behavior, Marie maintained her individuality and independence. Rather than hosting exquisite Roaring ‘20s galas, she fiddled in the outdoors, gardening, hiking, boating. A challenge with her good-sport husband led to her title as the first woman to cross the country by car. Her still-present Selby Foundation focuses on higher education and supports the youth and the future of Sarasota, while the Sarasota Garden Club she founded still flourishes today. Upon her death, she donated her home and gardens – her lifelong passion and sweat – to the public to love and appreciate in her honor.

Mable Ringling

In a way, Mable Ringling is both the opposite and twin to Marie Selby. While Marie preferred a frugal, low-key lifestyle, Mable and her husband, John Ringling of Ringling Circus fame, embraced their fortune. Travel, art, and parties galore filled the Ringling calendar. And although her husband John was the star of the show, his behind-the-scenes wife often called the shots. One of my favorite lines from any movie comes from My Big Fat Greek Wedding – “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” While John Ringling may be the man who formed Sarasota, Mabel is the neck behind their art, their gardens, their legacy, Sarasota. Their home’s name, Ca d’Zan, translates to “House of John,” but the blueprints labeled it “Mrs. John Ringling’s Home” as she was the boss, the one to oversee each element, from the tiles to the clay. She was a 1920s Joanna Gaines. Other construction, such as apartments and community projects, solidified her HDTV skills. This may be the norm now, but at the time she was a unique force and it took a strong personality to be heard. More of a Zelda Fitzgerald than a Hadley Hemmingway. It takes a strong backbone and tough character to be the woman Mable Ringling was and as we visit their museum, their gardens, and their home, her influence lies in each detail.

Today

Sarasota is home to many modern influential women, such as Lisa Carlton, Shirley Brown, Dr. Sarah Pappas, Dr. Laurey Stryker, Katherine Harris, and many, many (many!) more. As the influence and voice of women strengthens, that which is capable expands with it. The women in this article came at a different time and what they did with that time is commendable and shaped Sarasota and its history.

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