A trailblazer for women: Gwen Margolis, the first female FL Senate President, dies at 85

Gwen Margolis, president of the Florida Senate. Credit: Florida Memory, Department of State Library and Archives of Florida.

In political circles dominated by men, Gwen Margolis was a trailblazer — the first female to serve as Florida Senate President.

She died Tuesday, at 85.

Though the state Capitol remains closed, Senate President Bill Galvano said in a memo that there will be a “traditional memorial in front of the Senate Chamber doors for any members of the Legislature or our professional staff who wish to pay their respects.”

And, “In keeping with the Senate tradition of honoring the passing of presiding officers, President Margolis’ portrait will be draped with a black cloth.”

Here’s what longtime legislative reporter Mary Ellen Klas wrote about Margolis in the Miami Herald:

“Margolis, a Democrat, served a total of 30 years in the state Legislature, over three different stretches that began in 1974 and ended in 2016, when she decided not to seek another term. She served in the House of Representatives from 1974 to 1980. After that, she was elected to the Senate. She reached its top job in 1990 and became the first woman to lead any state Senate in the country.

Over the course of her 42-year career in public office, Margolis was a champion of women’s rights, pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment early in her career and frequently becoming the first in nearly all of her leadership endeavors.”

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement: “Gwen Margolis was a trailblazer who lit a path for a generation of Florida’s women leaders to follow. As the first female President of the Florida Senate, she was a champion for civil rights. As a Jewish woman, I am deeply grateful for her leadership and her legacy.”

Galvano recalled in a memo to all state senators that:

“President Margolis was a wealth of historical and institutional knowledge, and like many of you, I learned so much from her. In 2012, President Gaetz gave President Margolis the honorary title of ‘Dean of the Senate,’ which she carried to her retirement in 2016.

President Margolis took that responsibility very seriously and worked to set an example for newer Senators. After I was first elected to the Senate in 2012, I can remember joining Senator Margolis for several dinners, listening to her advice, and hearing so many of her stories about the process and the people she encountered along the way.

She could be fierce, yet loving, and I know those of us who served with President Margolis miss her quick wit in committee and on the Senate floor.”

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.