Mary Lou Baker (1915-1965)
A remarkably feminist woman who kept her maiden name, Mary Lou Baker was elected to the Florida House in 1942, the first full year of American involvement in World War II. Florida changed rapidly during the war, but until then, its legal system in regard to women was archaic.
Baker was born in British Columbia, Canada in 1915, but moved to Florida at the age of ten. She attended Florida Southern College and earned her JD from Stetson University.
Because Baker was an attorney and because her husband was a soldier, she saw the need for legislative reform more clearly than others. She successfully sponsored legislation to permit married women to manage their separate property, to sign contracts without the signature of husbands, and to automatically have the power of attorney for the couple.
Baker also set a precedent by being pregnant as a legislator. Her husband had come home on leave, and she kept her pregnancy secret from him and everyone else until after her 1944 re-election. Despite having a young child, she ran again in 1946 – but the war was over, and women were supposed to leave their jobs and return to their kitchens. Baker lost.
She never was able to persuade her male colleagues of the justice of another of her bills, which gave Florida women the right to sit on juries. It finally passed after her defeat, in 1949. (As late as 1961, when the Supreme Court heard a case on the subject, eighteen states still limited women’s participation on juries.)
The Florida Law Journal praised Mary Lou Baker's revisions on the property rights of married women, calling it "the most historic change in the basic law of the State of Florida in the past generation."