Former legislator Roberta Fox dies

Aug 11, 2009

Miami Herald–August 10, 2009


Roberta Fulton Fox, a Coral Gables feminist and attorney who pushed women’s and children’s issues in both houses of the Florida Legislature, died of breast cancer at her home on Sunday. She was 65.

Fox, a Democrat, served 10 years in Tallahassee — 1976-1982 in the House, District 110, followed by a single term in the Senate — and practiced law with husband Mike Gold.

Fox’s greatest legislative triumphs included bills protecting children: one permitting children to testify via video in abuse cases, another mandating fingerprinting and background checks for anyone working with kids.

Both came in the 1985 session.

Fox crusaded to open up the secretive process for choosing state appellate court judges, and for a three-day “cooling off period” in handgun sales.

Perhaps her greatest disappointment: the Equal Rights Amendment’s failure in 1982. Fox led the campaign to pass it in the House, 60-58. The Senate voted it down 22-16.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of today,” Fox told supporters at the time. “We all understood the Senate is a dark place, a secret place, a place not unlike a cesspool. You must now give it everything you have and send in reinforcements.”

The daughter of a sea captain and a masseuse, Fox was born in Philadelphia, raised in the Methodist church, and graduated from Coral Gables High School. She earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida — one of four women in the class of 1968. She remained an ardent Gator to the end.

A stint with Migrant Legal Services shortly after law school, working on civil rights and labor issues for farm workers, helped shape her social conscience, Gold said.

She also worked for Legal Services in Miami, specializing in housing and issues affecting the elderly.

The 2007 book Beyond Julia’s Daughters, which profiles 300 leading Miami-Dade County Women, says Fox worked on litigation “that led to the implementation of food stamp programs in rural Florida and on civil litigation regarding desegregation of structures and schools in the Central Florida farm belt.”

She later represented one of the anti-Vietnam War protesters known as the Gainesville 8 and, in 2003, six Hialeah state welfare workers fired for allegedly being rude to state Sen. Rudy Garcia’s grandmother.

They were reinstated. Fox waived her fees.

An early South Florida member of NOW — the National Organization for Women — Fox joined feminist leader Roxcy Bolton and five other women in a 1972 sit-in at University of Miami President Henry King Stanford’s office, protesting pay inequality for female university employees.

“Roberta was so proud of that,” Bolton said. “She said, `It’s the most important thing I ever did in the women’s movement.’ ”

She remained active in that movement until her health began to fail, shielding patients at a Kendall-area medical clinic from anti-abortion protesters on Saturdays, said Julia Dawson, another longtime activist.

Before seeking office, Fox served on Gov. Reubin Askew’s Commission on Marriage and Family, which examined problems with domestic violence and marital-assets laws and spearheaded reforms.

She ventured into politics to campaign for Richard “Dick” Pettigrew of Coral Gables, who became House Speaker.

The late Sen. Elaine Gordon urged Fox to run for the House, telling her “It’s lonely up here,” according to Nikki Beare, another early South Florida NOW member.

After male colleagues refused to back her for Speaker of the House in 1981, Fox said: “In the pit of my gut, it eats at me. For the first time in my life I’ve had to admit that I couldn’t have anything I wanted if I worked hard enough.”

Fox and Gordon collaborated legislation — including the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act of 1977 and a law setting alimony standards — that advocates for women and children praised.

Harry Johnston, Senate president during the mid-1980s, appointed Fox to chair the Committee on Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Under Fox’s leadership, “we had the first hospice licensing requirement [in the country] when nobody knew what hospice was,” said Johnston, a West Palm Beach lawyer.

Roberta Fox was in hospice care when she died. She already had late-stage cancer when doctors offered a diagnosis less than three years ago.

In addition to Gold, Fox is survived by stepdaughter Shari Rosenblatt.

Just as she didn’t want a wedding 36 years ago — opting instead for a notary public’s services — she didn’t want a funeral now, Mike Gold said.

Instead, friends will gather Saturday afternoon at her home to celebrate her life.