ORLANDO — Paula Hawkins, the feisty, self-described "housewife from Maitland" 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 in a race that pitted two of Florida's most popular politicians.
Hawkins entered public office at a time when doors that previously had been closed to women were being opened. Ideologically, 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. "I do not think there was a women in the room ... That was my introduction."
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."
Hawkins began her political career in the late 1950s when she and a group of other young housewives fought City Hall in order get sewers in their neighborhood in Maitland, an Orlando suburb. The women ran three reform candidates who defeated the mayor and two commissioners in the next city election.
Hawkins was elected to the Florida Public Service Commission in 1972, becoming only the third Republican since Reconstruction to win statewide office in what was then a strongly Democratic state. She became the commission's chairwoman and served as a Republican National committeewoman.
During the 1970s, she failed to win races for state legislature and lieutenant governor. After leaving the commission in 1978, she became a vice president at Air Florida.
Hawkins was elected to the Senate in 1980, first winning a six-candidate primary and a runoff and then defeating Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter. She was part of a wave of conservatives who came to Washington as part of the Ronald Reagan landslide.
She was instrumental in passing 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 family members 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.
Detractors called her a shoot-from-the-hip lightweight who took a superficial approach to complex issues.
Her first major initiative in the Senate was a political gaffe. During a luncheon of Florida agribusiness leaders featuring steak, asparagus and strawberries, she announced plans to jail food-stamp cheaters.
She was a supporter of Reaganomics but was one of the few Republicans not to sponsor the Gramm-Rudman bill for a balanced budget.
She voted both for it and against it on separate votes, explaining her "no" vote as a way to protect federal civilian pension increases.
During her re-election campaign in 1986, Hawkins said a Graham victory could help "tax-and-spend liberals" retake the Senate. Graham portrayed himself as a pragmatic Democrat and said Hawkins' efforts to fight child abuse and drugs amounted to being a cheerleader for causes no one opposed.
After her defeat, she told Floridians: "I want you all to know that I look back, not with regret, but to six years ago when we promised the people of Florida that if I went to Washington, you'd know I was there and I would make a difference."
After her Senate career, Hawkins served as a chief delegate to the United Nations Drug Conference in 1987 held in Vienna, Austria. She was also a delegate to the United Kingdom/United Nations Cocaine Summit held in London in 1989.
For a time, she chaired the National Commission of Responsibilities for Financing Post-Secondary Education.
Hawkins was plagued by neck and shoulder problems starting in 1982, the year she was hit by a prop and knocked unconscious at the WESH television studio in Orlando. She spent the following years in pain, in and out of traction, and in need of painkillers and regular visits to physical therapists. Hawkins and the television station reached a settlement in 1987.
Hawkins was born in Salt Lake City in 1927. She attended Utah State University before marrying her husband. They had three children.