In Florida’s halls of power, Sherry Johnson is somewhat of an anomaly: a black woman who grew up destitute and survived child abuse.
Her story is shocking. Raped at 8 and pregnant at 10, she was forced to marry her rapist at 11. She had to abandon high school after the babies kept coming.
For years, she kept silent. But now, her voice rings clear in chambers where the state’s laws are made. Her unrelenting public pleas to end child marriage are being heard.
After a lifetime of struggle, Johnson’s time has come. Finally.
At 58, she sports a head full of thick, tight curls and a pantsuit that would make Hillary Clinton proud. She navigates the corridors of the Capitol with a black binder tucked under her left arm, a purse slung over her shoulder and a fierce look of determination.
I struggle to keep pace with her as she makes her way past sepia-toned photographs celebrating Florida in the early 20th century, as though they were glorious times for everyone. Past the rows and rows of framed faces of lawmakers who gained fame within these walls.
“All men,” Johnson observes, as we dash by.
On this winter morning, days into the 2018 legislative session, she is on her way to meet with a state senator co-sponsoring a bill to abolish child marriage in Florida. An identical version has been introduced in the House.
Johnson has spent the last five years lobbying lawmakers to stop the kind of abuse she suffered in her childhood. An effort to ban child marriage under the age of 16 got traction in the Florida House in 2014 but went nowhere in the Senate. Since then, Johnson’s words have fallen on deaf ears. Doors have closed on her. Until recently.
As incredible as this may sound, Florida stands poised to become the first state in America to say no, unequivocally, to all marriages of minors.
Last year, Texas and Virginia enacted new laws limiting marriage to those 18 and over, but they made narrow exceptions for minors granted adult rights by the courts. The bills before the Florida legislature set 18 as the age for marriage and allow zero exceptions.
In Suite 202 of the Senate Office Building, Johnson gets a hug from Lauren Book, a 33-year-old senator from the south Florida city of Plantation who herself is a child abuse survivor and activist.
Book has blond hair, a Florida tan and big, bookish glasses. Her walls are blanketed by inspirational quotations from Plato, Shakespeare and even Coco Chanel: “If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.” She displays a brass desk plate that asks: “What would Beyonce do?”
“Sherry and I have a lot in common,” Book tells me.
“Until you put a face on this issue, people don’t understand,” she adds. “And Sherry has been that face. She has been able to destigmatize the process.”
Book signed on as co-sponsor of the Senate child marriage bill introduced by Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican and rape survivor. The two women legislators embraced the #MeToo movement and have been vocal on sexual misconduct allegations clouding the Florida Legislature.
In Book, Johnson sees an ally. If the bill passes, Johnson wants to stage a play based on her 2013 autobiographical novel, “Forgiving the Unforgiveable.” She’s also compiled a budget for a bus tour to promote awareness. She asks Book to help her brainstorm ways to raise money.
“When the bill passes, I want the community to know this has happened,” Johnson says. “I just want ideas. This is all so new to me.”
“You’ve been working so hard to make all this happen,” Book replies. “You have a lot going on. Take a break.”
“I can’t relax right now,” Johnson says without hesitation. “I’m on a journey.”