TAMPA — Helen Gordon Davis knew how to take her space on the stage, inhabit a role and mesmerize a room.
For her leading roles in community theater in Tampa and St. Petersburg, the former Hillsborough High School drama teacher won multiple best actress awards through the 1960s.
Mrs. Davis went on to give passionate speeches on the floor of the state Legislature, where she was equally alone and equally effective. As the first woman from Hillsborough County elected to the Florida House of Representatives, she opened doors for women and minorities, confronting inequalities with poise and determination.
Mrs. Davis, a fearless legislator revered by the many women from the Tampa Bay area who succeeded her in politics, died Monday of congestive heart failure. She was 88.
In retrospect, it is hard to imagine anyone else breaking down those same barriers because few carried her particular combination of courage and composure. When she moved to Tampa from her native Brooklyn, N.Y., she found that both her gender and Jewish heritage put her on the periphery of the city's inner circles.
In the 1970s, she tried to attend a meeting of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, of which she was a member, at the University Club.
A waitress blocked the door. It's an all-male club, the waitress said. No women allowed.
"I said to her, 'If I wear white boots and a tray, can I go in?' " Mrs. Davis later recalled. Fellow commissioners walked out with her. The group dined at the rival Commerce Club, where Mrs. Davis' husband had a membership.
"She opened my eyes as only Helen Gordon Davis can," said Elvin Martinez, 80, a former judge who served with Mrs. Davis in the Legislature in 1974. "She guided me to understanding of how unfairly we were treating women. She was my guru when it came to those things."
Mrs. Davis left the House in 1988 to run successfully for the state Senate. While there, she famously championed a bill to reduce the wait times in women's rest rooms by adding one commode to offset men's urinals. The so-called "potty parity" bill passed in 1992.
She posed for a stylish photo in the Senate chambers, hand on hip and a toilet seat slung around her neck.
In 1992, she lost a re-election bid to Charlie Crist.
Numerous honors followed her legislative career. Mrs. Davis was the first recipient of the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County's Lifetime Achievement Award, preceding former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons by a year. In 1998, the Commission on the Status of Women inducted Mrs. Davis into the Hillsborough County Women's Hall of Fame.
Helen Gordon was born Dec. 25, 1926, in New York City. At age 15 she worked as a Powers model, and would later model for Maas Brothers stores in Florida. She earned a degree in theater from Brooklyn College and appeared in George Bernard Shaw radio plays on New York's WNYC.
She moved to Tampa in 1948 with husband Gene Davis, who would go on to become a well-known liquor distributor. They built a home in 1953 on Davis Islands, where two daughters and a son would grow up. Mrs. Davis taught high school drama and acted in community theater.
Performances at Tampa Community Theatre in The Bad Seed and The Rainmaker earned her Gaspar Awards as best actress. She won a best supporting actress award for a role in Bus Stop.
In 1968, Mrs. Davis appeared in a St. Petersburg Little Theatre production of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice. She played Miss Alice, a rich benefactor to the Catholic church who seduces a church representative and later leaves him to die of a gunshot wound.
Mrs. Davis became interested in the play while earning a master's degree in theater from the University of South Florida. She used Tiny Alice as the focal point of a paper titled, "Why the Theatre of the Absurd is the World's Greatest Satire."
A string of "firsts" defined her public life. In 1952, Mrs. Davis became the first white woman in Florida to join the NAACP. A triggering incident occurred when a bus driver refused to allow her black housekeeper to sit with Mrs. Davis' children in the front of the bus on a shopping trip. Mrs. Davis' response was public and proud, marching down Nebraska Avenue to join the local office, her children in tow.
Mrs. Davis also founded the state's first women's center in 1971, recently renamed the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women.
When she ran for the state Legislature in 1974, her opponent referred to Mrs. Davis as "the rich b---- from Davis Islands."
Mrs. Davis' victory paved the way for a generation of Hillsborough women to follow her in politics, including Sandy Freedman, Pat Frank and Betty Castor.
She would be re-elected six times, during which she brought a new focus on women and families to the Legislature.
"In the early days when she would have a piece of controversial legislation that was received with ridicule, she would call crying to me because she felt so vilified and marginalized," said Stephanie Davis, her oldest daughter. "But that feeling changed over time as she became more and more successful and developed the respect of her colleagues, male and female, Republican and Democrat. Those early years really strengthened her and gave her the resolve to forge ahead."
In her legislation and speaking engagements, Mrs. Davis championed improvements to day care and adult foster care; prevention of juvenile delinquency and teen pregnancy; as well as labor and human rights issues for migrant workers.
She fought for pay equality for women and access to credit; clamping down on deadbeat dads and ending sexual harassment. In 1978, she sponsored the Displaced Homemakers Bill, which amended Florida's no-fault divorce laws that had left divorced women broke and without support.
Gov. Reubin Askew signed the bill, which allowed judges to consider alimony and opened several displaced homemakers' centers across the state — but not before colleagues reduced its funding by more than two-thirds.
"It was a real exhibition of the blatant sexism in the Legislature that this simple little bill had such a tough time," Mrs. Davis said at the time. "And it was a sign of the self-serving interests of many men in the Legislature, who either pay alimony or may have reason to think that they will pay it."
Mrs. Davis gave as good as she got, and often won the support of the same good-old-boys network that sometimes stood in her way.
In a bit of legislative horseplay, fellow lawmakers in 1978 gleefully shouted down her proposed "Florida Family Energy Conservation Day," only to be outdone when the House speaker announced that the resolution had passed.
Mrs. Davis remained active in Democratic causes after leaving the Legislature. In 2008, then-Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio recognized Mrs. Davis' founding of the Women's Survival Center (now the Centre for Women) 30 years earlier, and the Displaced Homemaker Program that operated there.
The resolution Iorio signed Oct. 16, 2008, designating a Helen Gordon Davis Day, was pushed through the Senate by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who said she regarded Mrs. Davis as a longtime mentor.
Earlier the same year, Mrs. Davis and Gene (who died in 2010) hired an auctioneer to sell the well-traveled couple's collectibles, including a Venetian mirror, mink coats, a marble Grecian sculpture and jewelry an appraiser called "unique and rare." The sale preceded their move to an independent and assisted living facility on Bayshore Boulevard.
On eBay, the sale brought 170 bidders from eight countries, and more than 17,000 visitors to the website by noon on auction day.
At the end of the day, Mrs. Davis told a Times reporter that only half of the items up for sale were purchased.
"So call me," she said.
Times staff writers Sue Carlton and Amy Scherzer contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.