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Forum discusses women's accomplishments

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By Delphine Herbert

Cheryl Olin, who moderated the March 8 Friday Forum which joined women’s groups worldwide in celebration of International Women’s Day, opened the luncheon discussion by stating that “women worldwide accomplish great things despite societal, cultural and legal obstacles to their reaching their full potential."

Here in Florida, right now in our state legislature, men who represent us are considering intrusive, unnecessary legislation that would interfere with the right of a woman and her doctor to make decisions about the woman’s own medical care.

The Coordinated Campaign Chair for the Democratic Party of Marion County continued: “We need women’s voices at the table more than ever” before she introduced a panel of accomplished individuals who shared stories of the difficulties they surmounted as they persevered in achieving their goals. They included Dana Cottrell, candidate for U.S. Congress, District 11; Sheila Feldman, long-time activist and noted Bichon breeder; LaVonda McCandless, newly elected chair of the Democratic Party of Marion County; and Sonya Nasser, professional mediator and businesswoman. 

“My perspectives are based on my life experiences,” said Dana Cottrell, who questions devotion to lobbyists rather than to country. “You here are critical thinkers. Most Americans are not.” 

Cottrell believes that sometimes you have to lose in order to stay in the game, citing as an example the fact that nobody wanted to play with her when as an outstanding recreational bowler, she won almost every game .

 Now 51, Cottrell, grew up Irish Catholic in New York at a time when custom dictated that girls-only employment options were to teach, become a nun or a secretary. She and her husband, a cancer survivor, taught at Department of Defense schools in South Korea and in Germany before moving to Florida where she now teaches ESL and special education students. They have an autistic son in whom they are working to instill respect for all women. Cottrell voiced strong concern about our increasingly stratefied society in which poverty ever more profoundly affects women and children, and young people are not learning to make their own way. 

Born in Venezuela to an American oil man and his Jewish wife who worked for Nelson Rockefeller, Sheila Feldman says she is Jewish by birth but like “93 percent of American Jews’ secular in belief and practice. When the family moved back to the United States, her father had her mother’s passport changed to indicate that she was Christian as his career would have been seriously impacted had the Oklahoma country club folk learned of her background. 

Since her father didn’t believe it was worthwhile to educate women, Feldman who during her high school years in Oklahoma was known as one of half a dozen “n. . . . .” lovers moved to California because it was one of only two states where college was virtually free. 

During the sixties S.I. Hayakawa reigned over San Francisco State and the extraordinarily charismatic Jim Jones mesmerized local hippies until drugs completely took over his life, leading to the horrendous event in Guyana where he and his followers drank the Kool-Aid. Dictatorial impulses elsewhere worry Feldman, especially the situation in Israel where the division between the Hasidim and the secularists as well as the inability of many in the United States to distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the Israeli government. 

Lavonda McCandless grew up loving Perry Mason and wanted to become a lawyer but her guidance counselor told her she wasn’t smart enough. So she wound up in nursing school, eventually joining the Air Force where an evaluation adjudged her “the best nurse ever.” 

However, when she wanted to marry a military man, both the military and the nursing staff put many obstacles in the couple’s way because “if your uterus worked, your brain wouldn’t.” 

McCandless was sexually assaulted by a family friend at the age of 11 and during her assignments with the DOD. This led to spirited discussion about the definitions of sexual assault, harassment and rape , with male military retirees seemingly choosing to blame the victim rather than admit that anyone in a well-ordered command simply would not follow orders or seek appropriate counsel .

Sonya Nasser, who came from Iran at the age of 9, first went to school in Jacksonville where her guidance counselor said that with her then heavy accent she would not be able to go to college. So she double majored in English and in political science at the University of North Florida before telling her family that she wanted to go to law school.