January 12, 1932 – Hattie Wyatt Caraway Becomes the 1st Woman Elected to the U.S. Senate

On this day in history, Hattie Wyatt Caraway from Arkansas became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She was the second woman to become a senator, and she served for 14 years. In 1943, she became the first woman to preside over the Senate.

Hattie Caraway

She was born in 1878 in Tennessee and attended college there. In 1902 she married Thaddeus Caraway and they settled in Arkansas. In 1912 Thaddeus was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1921 he became a U.S. Senator. After he died in office in 1931, the Arkansas governor followed the precedent of appointing widows to take their husbands’ places temporarily and appointed Hattie Caraway to the vacant seat. She was sworn into office on December 9, 1931.

(As the U.S. House history site reports, “The Washington Post” blasted Parnell’s rationale. “Representation in Congress belongs to the people of the State,” the Post editors wrote. “Mrs. Caraway should have been given the appointment on her own merit and not on the basis of sentimentality or family claim upon the seat.”)

With the backing of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, she easily won a special election in January, 1932 (with 92 percent of the vote) for the remaining months of the term, becoming the first woman elected to the Senate.

In May, 1932, Caraway surprised Arkansas politicians by announcing that she would run for a full term in the upcoming election. She told reporters, “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job.”

The former governor and current senator Huey Long of neighboring Louisiana traveled to Arkansas on a seven-day campaign swing on her behalf. Thaddeus Caraway had often allied with him, and Hattie Caraway also supported his legislative proposals. As for Long, the House history site explains that he had presidential ambitions and wanted to prove his popularity outside his home state by campaigning in the state of his chief rival, A biographer of Caraway stated that Long helped her amass nearly twice as many votes as her closest opponent. (Nancy Hendricks, Senator Hattie Caraway: An Arkansas Legacy) In the seven–way primary, Caraway won 44.7 percent of the vote, carrying 61 of the state’s 75 counties.

Huey Long

In 1938, Caraway ran for reelection against Congressman John L. McClellan. The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes that his slogan was “We need another man in the Senate.” Nevertheless, she had the support of veterans, women, and union members, and won the election.

Caraway had several Senate committee assignments and in 1933 became the first woman to chair a committee when she was elected to head the Committee on Enrolled Bills; she retained that position until she left Congress in 1945. She also became the first woman to preside over the Senate, the first senior woman Senator (when Joe Robinson died in 1937), and the first woman to run a Senate hearing.

She sustained a special interest in relief for farmers, flood control, and veterans’ benefits, all of direct concern to her constituents, and cast her votes for nearly every New Deal measure. She maintained loyalty to the South, however, when it came to race issues. Caraway voted against the antilynching law of 1938 and, in 1942, joined other southern Senators in a filibuster to block a proposed bill that would have eliminated the poll tax. She also was a strict prohibitionist.

Although she carefully prepared herself for Senate work, Caraway spoke infrequently and rarely made speeches on the floor. She was sometimes portrayed by patronizing reporters as “Silent Hattie.” She made only fifteen speeches on theSenate floor during her thirteen-year tenure. She once explained her reticence by explaining, “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.” (quoted in Women’s Political Discourse: A 21st-Century Perspective by Molly Mayhad and Brenda DeVore Marshall, p. 47)

In 1943, Caraway became the first woman in Congress to cosponsor the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

But Caraway was always careful to point out that she did not support or oppose legislation because of her gender. Rather, she claimed, her views were dependent on rational thinking and debate (Megaphones to Microphones: Speeches of American Women, 1920-1960 by Sandra J. Sarkela, Susan Ross, and Margaret Lowe, p. 185.)

In 1944, Caraway faced a tough field of Democratic primary challengers in her bid for renomination. Her campaign was uninspired, the House history site observes, and she finished last among the four contenders. The winner, a dynamic freshman Representative and former University of Arkansas president, J. William Fulbright, was eventually elected and served for three decades as one of the Senate’s most influential Members. Caraway’s Senate service ended on January 2, 1945.

Franklin Roosevelt nominated Caraway in early 1945 as a member of the Federal Employees’ Compensation Commission, where she served for a year. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman elevated her to the commission’s appeals board, where she remained until her death on December 21, 1950, in Falls Church, Virginia.

On February 21, 2001, the United States Postal Service issued a 76-cent Distinguished Americans series postage stamp in her honor. Her gravesite at Oaklawn Cemetery in Jonesboro, Arkansas, was listed in 2007 on the National Register of Historic Places.

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