Monday, December 7, 2009

Paula Hawkins

An interesting transitional figure in the advancement of women in American politics, has died. Paula Hawkins, who represented Florida in the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1987, died last Friday, at the age of 82.

The cataloguing of firsts for women in elective office is complicated by the distinction between those who followed their husbands into office, often as widows, as opposed to women who achieved public office "on their own". In its obituary, The New York Times describes the nature of Hawkins's "first":

She was the first woman elected to a full Senate term without being preceded in politics by a husband or father. (Hazel Abel of Nebraska, who also had no political family ties, was elected to the Senate in 1954, but only to serve the final two months of the term of the incumbent, who had died in office.) She was also the first woman to be a senator from Florida.

To some of us, 1980 doesn't seem like that long ago (although perhaps we're just in denial). But it clearly was a different time, as evidenced by the following story recounted in the Times:

At a news conference soon after her victory, a male television reporter condescendingly asked Mrs. Hawkins who would do the laundry now that she was going to be busy in the Senate. “I don’t really think you need to worry about my laundry,” she replied, smiling with her lips but not with her eyes. “O.K.?”

Nancy Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas, was the only other woman in the Senate during Hawkins's term. There are now 17 female senators.

Most of the women who have been elected to the Senate since Hawkins left that body, are Democrats. Of the six Republican women who have followed Kassebaum and Hawkins, I think it's safe to say that none have been as socially conservative as Hawkins was. My main memory of her from that time was of how she got under the skin of the leaders of the women's movement, who were (sometimes far) to the left of her. She was, for better or worse, a sort of forerunner of Sarah Palin.

Hawkins also played a role in the process I described here, of Republicans taking over Senate seats in the South. In the 11 states that had seceded at the time of the Civil War, Republican numbers went from six to 10 with the 1980 election. Then, in 1986, when Hawkins failed of reelection in a year when Democrats took back control of the Senate, that number went back down to six. There are now 15 Republican senators from those states.

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