Saturday, December 5, 2009

Death of a Pioneer

Seventeen members of the U.S. Senate are women. That's an all–time high. And all but four of them are Democrats.

But, in 1980, no woman had been elected to a full six–year Senate term — unless her husband or father preceded her. Republican Paula Hawkins changed that, winning a Senate seat from Florida with 52% of the vote.

This week, Hawkins died at the age of 82.

These days, female politicians are often regarded as feminists, but Hawkins rejected that label in 1980. She preferred to be known as "feminine," and her political views could hardly be regarded as feminist in nature. "Her opposition to abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment made her anathema to the National Organization for Women, which picketed her appearances and accused her of embracing positions strictly in accordance with her Mormon faith," writes David Stout in the New York Times.

Hawkins, though, made a significant contribution to child protection. She was a sponsor of the Missing Children's Act of 1982. She may have been motivated by her memory of being molested as a child, a fact she revealed to stunned colleagues during a congressional hearing.

In 1984, Hawkins co–chaired the platform committee at the Republican National Convention that nominated Ronald Reagan for a second term, even though she suffered a serious injury two years earlier that caused her neck and back pain afterward. She had surgery when she sought re–election in 1986, and the time she spent in the hospital and recovering at home was believed to cost her the election — although she may have lost the race anyway. The 1986 midterm election resulted in an eight–seat loss for the Republicans in the Senate, and Hawkins lost the race by 10 percentage points.

Hawkins never sought elective office again.

I didn't agree with her on many issues, but I respected her. And I believe most, if not all, of the women in the Senate (the most senior of whom was first elected to the Senate the year Hawkins lost her bid for re–election) would agree that she paved the way for their success.

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