Congressman: Ex-Fla. Sen. Paula Hawkins dies at 82; first Southern woman elected to the Senate

  • Article by: MIKE SCHNEIDER , Associated Press
  • Updated: December 4, 2009 - 11:23 AM

ORLANDO, Fla. - Paula Hawkins, who in 1980 became the first woman elected to a full Senate term without a family political connection, died Friday. She was 82.

Hawkins had been in poor health recently, having suffered a stroke and a fall, said U.S. Rep. John Mica, a close friend. She died at Florida Hospital in Orlando surrounded by her family, he said.

During her single six-year term in the U.S. Senate, the Republican positioned herself as a media-savvy champion of children and working mothers and an enemy of drug dealers. She lost her bid for a second term in 1986 to then-Gov. Bob Graham.

Hawkins entered public office at a time when doors that previously had been closed to women were being opened. She never considered herself a feminist, but she championed equal opportunities for women.

She was the first woman senator elected from the South and the first woman from any state elected to a full Senate term who was not the wife or daughter of a politician. Nebraska businesswoman Hazel Abel, who also had no political family ties, was elected from that state in 1954 to serve the final two months in the term of a senator who had died in office.

"I think it showed other women that you could do this," Hawkins said in a 1997 interview for an oral history program at the University of Florida.

Hawkins backed legislation that helped homemakers enter the job market after divorce or widowhood. She supported equalizing pension benefits for women by taking into account their years spent at home raising children. She fought to get day care for the children of Senate employees and pushed for tax breaks on child care expenses.

She even forced fellow senators to don bathing trunks when swimming in the Senate gym so she could work out at the previously all-male bastion during daytime hours.

But there were slights. At one of her first news conferences in Washington as a senator, a television reporter asked who was going to do her laundry if she was busy working in the U.S. Senate.

"I kept saying (to myself), this is 1980 and I can't believe that anybody is asking me this, especially a grown man from a national network," Hawkins said in the 1997 interview.

Yet at the same time, Hawkins opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion-on-demand. She refused to join the Congressional Woman's Caucus because she thought childcare, pension equity and other matters were "family issues" and not just of concern to women.

"I did not like the Equal Rights Amendment," she said. "I predicted that it would bring about the downfall of the father's responsibility to support the family."

Elected to the Senate in 1980, Hawkins was part of a wave of conservatives who came to Washington as part of the Ronald Reagan landslide.

She helped pass the Missing Children's Act of 1982, which established a national clearinghouse for information about missing children.

In 1984, she startled her Senate colleagues, friends and relatives by disclosing during a congressional hearing that she was sexually molested as a child. Her admission was greeted with widespread public sympathy.

She pushed legislation that cut aid to countries that did not reduce their drug production. She helped initiate the South Florida Drug Task Force and assisted in creating the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

Hawkins was born in Salt Lake City in 1927. She attended Utah State University before marrying her husband, Gene Hawkins. They had three children.

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