ORLANDO, Fla.Paula Hawkins, Florida’s first and only female U.S. senator, forged her own path and, in doing so, helped pave the way for women in leadership.

  • Sen. Paula Hawkins is only woman to have represented Florida in US Senate
  • Hawkins, her husband faced sexism during term in early 1980s
  • She spearheaded Missing Children’s Act, which paved way for Amber Alerts
  • WATCH: ▼ Digital exclusive: Road to the Missing Children's Act ▼

“She was the first woman in the history of the country elected to the Senate in her own right,” explained her eldest daughter, Genean McKinnon. “She was not the widow of someone who had been a senator or the daughter of someone who had been in office.”

McKinnon describes her mother as fearless.

“She would just walk out of the middle of a fight, the middle of a room, whatever — and she would just go after her goals and what she thought was right.”

Hawkins was elected in 1980 and faced her share of sexism. Congress was still a boys’ club in the 1980s. Her husband was even invited to join the Senate Wives' Club.

"They had to rename the club because he was the first-ever Senate Husband," McKinnon said.

“The first question she was asked by a male reporter was, ‘Who’s going to do the laundry,’ and that gives you a sense of the environment she was in,” said Judge Patricia Fawsett, one of two female judges Hawkins helped appoint to the federal bench.

Fawsett, a senior judge with the U.S. Middle District Court, said Hawkins had it all: the brains and the beauty. But the beauty didn’t always work in her favor.

“She lived in a culture where women, especially beautiful women, should be seen but not heard,” she said. “She coupled that beauty with a first-rate intellect.”

During her single term in office, Hawkins, among other things, fought to protect consumers, put a stop to the drug trade and help families. She’s probably best known for the Missing Children’s Act, which created a national registry for missing kids and led to Amber Alerts.

But getting the bill passed into law wasn’t easy.

“You would think everybody would want to help save our children,” McKinnon said. “It was just so novel and so untested that it was difficult to build support for.”

But Hawkins was not one to give up from obstacles.

“She was feisty enough to stand up and be heard,” Fawsett said. “People kept trying to push her back and push her down, but they had no idea with whom they were dealing.”

Hawkins remained active in politics for several years after serving as senator. She died in 2009.

Digital exclusive: Road to the Missing Children's Act