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Crossword | Don't Sue Us!, No. 0313

Column: Why Mary Lou Baker belongs in Florida Women's Hall of Fame

Baker: “The purpose of a name is to designate an individual.”

House of Representatives

Baker: “The purpose of a name is to designate an individual.”

In March 1939, Miami lawyer Ethel Murrell told an assembly of Florida State College for Women students that Florida law classified married females in the same legal category as lunatics and idiots. Murrell's remarks sparked a heated debate, prompting the Tampa Tribune to ask the headline question: "Should Married Women Be Classed with Idiots?"

Mary Lou Baker decided to do something about the legal status of women in Florida. In the late 1990s, I nominated Baker for the Florida Women's Hall of Fame. A committee narrows the list to 10 women. The list is sent to the governor for his consideration.

I had already succeeded in nominating Paulina Pedroso, an Afro-Cuban patriot who lived in Ybor City. But Baker's case proved much more daunting. I nominated her at least a dozen times, but the governor never selected her until last week, when Gov. Rick Scott chose Baker to be inducted into the 2017 Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

Born in British Columbia in 1914, Mary Lou Baker moved with her parents to Clearwater in 1925. Her father, Lee Lafayette Baker, was a Pinellas County judge, while her mother, Mary Vesgar Baker, served as president of the Florida Democratic Women's Club and twice attended national Democratic conventions.

A Clearwater High alumna, Mary Lou Baker attended Florida Southern College and received her law degree from Stetson University. She married Sgt. Searle Harris Matthews in 1938 but kept her maiden name. The newlyweds resided at 5141 20th Ave. S, St. Petersburg.

In 1942, she won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, becoming only the second woman to hold office in that political body (Edna Giles Fuller of Orlando was the first, elected in 1928).

When Baker arrived in Tallahassee, she was the only woman serving in the 1943 Legislature. The political body included no African-Americans, Hispanics or Republicans. Spittoons flanked her desk. The chamber was a male bastion, a political environment enveloped in cigar smoke and dominated by rural politicians determined to keep taxes low and re-election prospects high.

But in the midst of war, the home front thrust homemakers into the ranks of welders, taxi drivers and even legislators. War serves as an engine of change. World War I had provided the impetus to pass the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. World War II was even more tumultuous, as millions of women not only entered the workforce but 350,000 joined women's military units such as the WACS, WAVES and SPARS.

War or no war, Baker startled her colleagues when she introduced the Married Women's Rights bill. The measure, Baker contended, would provide a married woman "the legal right to carry on the business when her husband goes away to war." The measure also allowed married women the right to sue and be sued, convey property and execute documents. The press nicknamed it the "Women's Emancipation Bill."

Emancipation can be an explosive word, and the bill engendered rancorous debate. Rep. Archie Clement of Tarpon Springs called Baker's measure "dangerous." Clement implored his colleagues, "Let's not get sentimental because there's a good-looking lady here sponsoring the bill." Critics humiliated Baker from the floor while attempting to entangle the bill with crippling amendments.

Plant City Rep. E.P. Martin excoriated Baker. "I'm not opposed to women's rights — God knows they have more rights now than any man can ever hope to have. I'm trying to protect them."

Irrepressible and indefatigable, Baker lobbied every single legislator, won over naysayers and maneuvered her bill to passage. "Isn't it grand?" she exulted. "No bill of the session has followed so erratic and unpredictable course to victory," trumpeted the St. Petersburg Times.

"Lady, I am sincere you did a swell job," saluted Rep. Alex Williams of Indian River County. "Never did you ask for any special favor or any extra consideration during debate, or any other time because you are a woman."

Baker, however, failed in her efforts to grant women the right to serve on juries. Arguing that the introduction of women would raise the intelligence level of juries, she charged, "One can hardly overestimate the ignorance of the average juror in juries composed solely of males."

Amid acrimonious debate, the House defeated the measure 50 to 38. A Live Oak representative contended that the average mother should be "more concerned about her children at dinner time than listening to testimony in a trial."

Desperate opponents introduced the race question, predicting the bill would break down the door to "Negro women to be on juries." Rep. Clay Lewis of Gulf County asked colleagues, "How many of your wives have asked you to support this bill?" A Citrus County legislator asked the body to consider the extra expenses required for separate restrooms.

The conservative Tallahassee Daily Democrat begrudgingly praised Rep. Baker, applauding her "poise, ability and strategy as to prove that women can make first-rate legislators."

Women eventually secured the right to serve on juries in 1949, but change came so slowly that it required a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hoyt vs. Tampa (1961), to implement the law.

Running for re-election in 1944, Baker's "feminism" became a campaign issue. Although married, she stubbornly retained her maiden name. Her husband, Capt. Searle Matthews, endorsed his wife while flying missions in the Pacific theater. "My wife, Mary Lou Baker," he wrote, "is an excellent housewife, an able lawyer and legislator. … She possesses great beauty, poise, charm and friendliness."

When an opponent asked whether she was ashamed of adopting her husband's name, Baker pounced with flair: "The purpose of a name is to designate an individual, and to distinguish that individual from others. I received my law degree and my certificate to practice as Mary Lou Baker. … It might even be considered unsportsmanlike for me to use the name of my husband upon the ballot and thereby borrow from the goodwill established by the name of Capt. Searle H. Matthews."

The St. Petersburg Times proclaimed that Baker delivered "the most unusual post-campaign statement ever to come from a local winning candidate." In the wake of victory, Baker announced to supporters that just minutes earlier, she had delivered the best possible news to her husband: She not only won the election, she was pregnant!

In the 1945 legislative session — still the only woman in the political fraternity — Baker emerged as a leader in education reform. Legislators debated the future of Florida State College for Women. Holding her 8-month-old son, Lee Harris, she told reporters that she hoped he attended a coed college. In 1947, Florida State University was born, replacing FSCW.

Baker was defeated in 1946. Her district, Pinellas County, was experiencing a ground shift in politics as new retirees and Midwestern transplants swelled a surging Republican Party.

Mary Lou Baker died in 1965. She was only 50 years old. The Florida Law Journal eloquently summarized her career: "To Mary Lou Baker, the lady from Pinellas must be given credit for accomplishing the most historic change which has occurred in the basic law of the state of Florida in the past generation."

Gary R. Mormino, the Frank E. Duckwall emeritus professor of Florida history at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, serves as scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.

By Tom McCoy

Edited by Will Shortz

Across

1 It returns just before spring: Abbr.

4 Univ. parts

9 Black-and-white treat

13 Sends an invitation for

19 Cell material

20 Independently

21 Fur fighters?

22 Combs

23 Wooden arts-and-crafts piece

26 Fantasy land

27 "Fingers crossed!"

28 "Sprechen ____ Deutsch?"

29 Great American Ball Park team

31 Collector's ____

32 Quaint social occasion

38 Kind of poem

40 ____ Bo

41 "I almost forgot …"

42 Positive response

43 Work

45 "Hands off!"

46 Pre-euro coin

49 Shoelace alternative

55 Get the message, say

56 With equal frequency

57 Streak

58 Cigar type

60 "Borrowed"

61 Titter

62 Modern "Carpe diem"

63 Locale for phalanges

65 Cry that's a homophone of 81-Across

66 Tool for reproduction

71 "Heaven and earth in miniature," per a Chinese proverb

73 Expressions of disgust

75 Sole

76 Marco ____ (shirt sold on Rubio's website)

77 Come to an end

79 Shenanigans

81 Barely make, with "out"

82 Appetizer

84 Section of a foreign travel guide, maybe

85 Hybrid outdoor game

87 Prepared

88 Fatty cut of fish at a sushi bar

90 Named, informally

91 Where, to Cato

92 Burrowing insect

93 ____ glance

94 Convulsion

99 Reagan, with "the"

105 Prefix with cumulus

106 Identifying lines at the bottoms of pages

107 Certain hosp. exam

108 Caught sight of

110 Ungraceful

111 Fixture in many a basement

116 Emulated one of Old MacDonald's animals

117 One that's out of one's head?

118 Response to

"Who goes there?"

119 Poorly

120 Brotherhood and sisterhood

121 Neophyte, in modern slang

122 Cartridge filler

123 Convened

Down

1 Self-help guru who wrote "Life Code"

2 Hoity-toity

3 Jake of CNN

4 Place for a throne

5 World Showcase site

6 Hang (around)

7 Take unwanted steps?

8 Line at the zoo

9 Elect

10 King, in Portugal

11 Series finale?

12 Image on the Connecticut state quarter

13 Grant portrayer on TV

14 Line of cliffs

15 Land in two pieces?

16 Ingredient that's been left out?

17 Pertaining to Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, e.g.

18 Spanish she-bear

24 One for two of four

25 Show (out)

30 "____ a real nowhere man …"

33 Complete reversal

34 Source of the names of two months

35 Trounce

36 "Atlas Shrugged" author Rand

37 Soprano Sumac

39 Think piece?

44 Writer of the line "Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December"

46 Leader elected in 1946

47 Prefix with tourism

48 Fossil-fuel residue

49 Still-life object

50 First name in cosmetics

51 Discoverer's cry

52 Org. of the Argonauts and the Alouettes

53 Some natural-history-museum displays, for short

54 Tributary of the Rhine

55 Substation?

58 The four seasons and others

59 Brown-and-white treat

61 Start of many a bumper sticker

64 Backing at a business meeting?

67 "Four Quartets" poet

68 Two 1980s White House personages

69 Isao of the P.G.A.

70 Online greetings

72 Toy brand with soft sales?

74 Genealogical grouping, informally

78 Bit of a joule

80 Average guy

82 French city said to have given its name to a car

83 Bit of gymwear

84 Start of a concession

85 Unoccupied

86 Start eating

87 Inner feeling

88 Court technique

89 Bobby in skates

92 "It's f-f-freezing!"

93 Artful

95 Daddy

96 Crime stories?

97 "Streetcar" call

98 You could have it in any color you wanted, as long as it was black

100 "Two Treatises of Government" philosopher

101 Smallest slice of a pie chart, maybe

102 Must have

103 Scapegrace

104 Facetious reply to "Describe yourself in three adjectives"

109 Recipe instruction

110 Sticky stuff

112 Line at a wedding

113 Role for Keanu Reeves

114 Chatter

115 Ingredient in a white lady

Rights bill. The measure, Baker contended, would provide a married woman "the legal right to carry on the business when her husband goes away to war." The measure also allowed married women the right to sue and be sued, convey property and execute documents. The press nicknamed it the "Women's Emancipation Bill."

Emancipation can be an explosive word, and the bill engendered rancorous debate. Rep. Archie Clement of Tarpon Springs called Baker's measure "dangerous." Clement implored his colleagues, "Let's not get sentimental because there's a good-looking lady here sponsoring the bill." Critics humiliated Baker from the floor while attempting to entangle the bill with crippling amendments.

Plant City Rep. E.P. Martin excoriated Baker. "I'm not opposed to women's rights — God knows they have more rights now than any man can ever hope to have. I'm trying to protect them."

Irrepressible and indefatigable, Baker lobbied every single legislator, won over naysayers and maneuvered her bill to passage. "Isn't it grand?" she exulted. "No bill of the session has followed so erratic and unpredictable course to victory," trumpeted the St. Petersburg Times.

"Lady, I am sincere you did a swell job," saluted Rep. Alex Williams of Indian River County. "Never did you ask for any special favor or any extra consideration during debate, or any other time because you are a woman."

Baker, however, failed in her efforts to grant women the right to serve on juries. Arguing that the introduction of women would raise the intelligence level of juries, she charged, "One can hardly overestimate the ignorance of the average juror in juries composed solely of males."

Amid acrimonious debate, the House defeated the measure 50 to 38. A Live Oak representative contended that the average mother should be "more concerned about her children at dinner time than listening to testimony in a trial."

Desperate opponents introduced the race question, predicting the bill would break down the door to "Negro women to be on juries." Rep. Clay Lewis of Gulf County asked colleagues, "How many of your wives have asked you to support this bill?" A Citrus County legislator asked the body to consider the extra expenses required for separate rest rooms.

The conservative Tallahassee Daily Democrat begrudgingly praised Rep. Baker, applauding her "poise, ability and strategy as to prove that women can make first-rate legislators."

Women eventually secured the right to serve on juries in 1949, but change came so slowly that it required a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hoyt vs. Tampa, (1961) to implement the law.

Running for re-election in 1944, Baker's "feminism" became a campaign issue. Although married, she stubbornly retained her maiden name. Her husband, Capt. Searle Matthews, endorsed his wife while flying missions in the Pacific Theater. "My wife, Mary Lou Baker," he wrote, "is an excellent housewife, an able lawyer and legislator. ... She possesses great beauty, poise, charm and friendliness."

When an opponent asked whether she was ashamed of adopting her husband's name, Baker pounced with flair: "The purpose of a name is to designate an individual, and to distinguish that individual from others. I received my law degree and my certificate to practice as Mary Lou Baker. ... It might even be considered unsportsmanlike for me to use the name of my husband upon the ballot and thereby borrow from the goodwill established by the name of Capt. Searle H. Matthews."

The St. Petersburg Times proclaimed that Baker delivered "the most unusual post-campaign statement ever to come from a local winning candidate." In the wake of victory, Baker announced to supporters that just minutes earlier, she had delivered the best possible news to her husband: She not only won the election, she was pregnant!

In the 1945 legislative session — still the only woman in the political fraternity — Baker emerged as a leader in education reform. Legislators debated the future of Florida State College for Women. Holding her eight-month-old son, Lee Harris, she told reporters that she hoped he attended a co-ed college. In 1947, Florida State University was born, replacing FSCW.

Baker was defeated in 1946. Her district, Pinellas County, was experiencing a ground shift in politics as new retirees and Midwestern transplants swelled a surging Republican Party.

Mary Lou Baker died in 1965. She was only 50 years old. The Florida Law Journal eloquently summarized her career: "To Mary Lou Baker, the lady from Pinellas must be given credit for accomplishing the most historic change which has occurred in the basic law of the State of Florida in the past generation."

Gary R. Mormino, the Frank E. Duckwall emeritus professor of Florida history at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, serves as scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.

Column: Why Mary Lou Baker belongs in Florida Women's Hall of Fame 08/31/17 [Last modified: Saturday, September 2, 2017 10:37am]
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