Helen Gordon Davis, the first woman from Hillsborough County elected to serve in the Florida Legislature, died from congestive heart failure on Monday. She was 88.
“She was one of the most effective, powerful women leaders in the Florida Legislature,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Chair Sandy Murman said last fall at an event at the Women’s Centre in Hyde Park, a facility that Mrs. Davis helped create back in the early 1970s to help women succeed both personally and professionally.
She was a native New Yorker, Brooklyn to be precise, born on Christmas Day back in 1926. She moved to Tampa in 1948 with her husband, Gene Davis, and pursued an acting career for many years before she opted to go into political office.
But she was always an activist. In 1952, she became the first white woman in Florida to join the NAACP.
In 1974, at the age of 47, she ran for office for the first time, winning a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, becoming the first woman ever elected from Hillsborough County to the Legislature. She was re-elected for six consecutive terms and, in 1988, was elected to the Florida Senate. Her political career ended in 1992 when she lost that state Senate seat that comprised parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to Charlie Crist.
She sponsored the first legislation for displaced homemakers and spouse abuse centers, as well as the first sexual harassment law. She personally funded a study of equity in state employment.
She also created the Hillsborough Consumer Affairs Agency, the Displaced Homemakers for Divorced Women Act, Court Depositories for Child Support Payments, the Marriage License Trust Fund for Spouse Abuse Centers, and doubled the penalties for hate crime.
Davis developed Phone Friend for latchkey children; raised funds for the study of pay equity in state government, which resulted in a $5,000 pay increase for 36,000 women and minority state workers; placed a one-cent tax for indigent healthcare in Hillsborough County; created mediation and arbitration in the courts; created the Guardian Ad Litem for Children program; added ”Families” to the Department of Children; mandated two women’s toilets for every one for men in public facilities and created the Florida Pre-Paid Tuition Program.
At the event last November where a Women’s Business Centre was opened in her name, Mrs. Davis was too ill to attend, but she wrote a note that her son Gordon read aloud to the crowd.
“In 1974 when I first arranged to purchase this mansion that is now the Women’s Centre, women were wearing buttons that were saying ’59 cents for every 1 dollar a man makes.’ In 1990 after all the strikes, struggles and bra-burnings, they finally increased wages to 77 cents for every dollar a man makes for doing the same job. Today due to the gaining awareness of inequality, it is now 82 cents for every dollar. My hope with the advent of this Business Centre, women will be better trained to compete in the work place and earn wages at the same rate as their male counterparts. 48 million live in poverty in the U.S., 26 million of them are women, most of them are supporting families on their own. We need more centers to exist in the struggle for impoverished women to get ahead. Founding the Women’s Centre has been one of my proudest accomplishments, and the present administration has helped create a much better world for women in this community.”
Mrs. Davis is survived by her son, Gordon Davis, and daughters Stephanie and Karen Davis. Her sister, Jeanne Desberg, and two grandchildren.