Elizabeth Dortsch Barnard (C. 1881 – 1960)
Elizabeth Dortsch Barnard was Tampa’s first female postmaster, at a time when postal service was important to a fast-growing city during the Roaring Twenties. It also was a time when postal appointments often were political, but she earned her way to the top position in Tampa. A widow with children to support, she was undeterred by initial employment discrimination, and earlier than most women or minorities, she understood the relative opportunity for women in the federal civil service. She studied the post office’s promotion requirements and scored well on objective civil service exams – and when she reached the highest position in Tampa in 1923, she was the highest-paid woman in the history of the US Post Office. Under her ten-year tenure, sixteen new postal sub-stations were created in Tampa, and the number of letter carriers here rose from 19 to 113. She proved that women could be top executives and thus provided a role model for others.
Elizabeth Dortch Barnard was born in Manatee County in 1881. She married in 1900 and moved to Port Tampa – then an independent municipality at the western tip of the peninsula –when she was nineteen. Tragedy struck six years later. Her husband died, leaving her a 25-year-old widow with two young children to support. At the time, there was no Social Security, and except in Tampa’s mutual aid societies for Latinos, life insurance remained uncommon.
Desperately seeking paid work, Barnard applied to the post office and was told they were “not using women.” No laws prohibited such employment discrimination then, but this rejection was especially ironic in that young Mabel Williams Bean had provided great service to American forces during the 1898 Spanish-American War by using her position at the Port Tampa Post Office. It was the major embarkation point for the war in Cuba, and she reported to American authorities on the movement and mail of Spanish enemies.
Perhaps it was Bean’s example that motivated Barnard to persist with her employment quest, as in 1907, she was hired as a stenographer for downtown postal executives. She took courses at Tampa Business College to improve her credentials and supplemented her low pay with a second job. With the duties to her children as well, Barnard’s day began at seven and often lasted until midnight. Many other women worked such hours, too, but unlike most, Barnard mapped out a career plan and moved determinedly towards promotions.
She was uncommonly astute in insisting on employment with the federal civil service system, which unlike most employers, defined the qualifications for each promotion and grade level. According to an article by the late historian Leland Hawes, she said: “There was an exhilaration in each inch of ground yielded to me. I would think: This is my very own. I won this recognition alone.”
By 1923, she held the top postal job in Tampa, and records of the U.S. Post Office declare that when she took over on January 26, she was the highest-paid female employee in the history of American postal service. She earned $6,000 annually, at a time when the average postal salary was just $1,870.
Elizabeth Barnard presided over Tampa’s great boom in the 1920s, heading a post office that soared from 19 letter carriers in 1923 to 113 just four years later. Sixteen postal sub-stations were established under her ten-year administration. She proved that a woman could perform well in a top executive position during a stressful time.
At this level, though, federal positions became presidential appointments that usually had an element of party loyalty. Republican Warren Harding was president when Barnard was appointed in 1923, and two Republicans succeeded him. Although Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration would mean unprecedented appointments for women nationally, the effect for Barnard was the opposite. Tampa was a Democratic town, and although her work was not partisan, too many men wanted her job. She was forced into retirement at age 52.
The decade that she was postmaster, from 1923 to 1933, represented Tampa’s boom times, but her obvious executive ability was not rewarded by any other employer. She lived on to age 79, dying in Jacksonville in 1960.
See also Doris Weatherford, Real Women of Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County, published by the University of Tampa.