“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.”
~ Hattie Wyatt Caraway, the first woman elected (in a landslide)
on November 8, 1932 to serve a full term as a United States Senator
(Note: This year’s National Women’s History Month theme is, “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” I am stretching the theme a bit by including a trailblazer in public service, but as we are still reeling from the election season I thought it important to recognize a very significant trail blazer in that arena.)
On November 13, 1931, Hattie Wyatt Caraway was appointed to fill her deceased husband’s vacated Senate seat. This was not unusual at the time, although it is far less common now (Congresswoman Doris Matsui, Democrat from California’s sixth Congressional District, may be the only current female member of Congress who started her political career by inheriting her husband’s seat.) Senator Hattie Caraway was confirmed in a special election a month later, establishing her in history as the first woman elected to the Senate. Typically, widows of members of Congress who filled their husband’s seats were merely symbols, “placeholders” until the next general election in which men would run for election to fill the seats on a more permanent basis. But Senator Caraway had other ideas.
End of the “Placeholder”
While she was acting as a placeholder, she also became the first woman to preside over the Senate, spelling the Vice President who was “resting.” To my mind, this was likely during a time when no controversial votes were taking place in which the VP would have to break a tie; but all the same, it was a first. She went on to be the first woman to chair a Senate committee and to preside over a Senate hearing. And while she earned the nickname, “Silent Hattie,” because she seldom spoke out on the Senate Floor (“I haven’t the heart to take a minute from the men. The poor dears love it so,” she explained), she was vocal enough in committee meetings and she took the opportunity of presiding over the Senate in the VP’s absence to announce that she planned to run for re-election that fall! It was unheard of for a placeholder widow to take her job so seriously, but that is precisely what made Hattie Caraway a true trailblazer.
Senator from Arkansas
Born in Tennessee, Hattie Wyatt graduated from Dickson Normal College in Dickson, Tennessee, where she met her future husband, Arkansan Thaddeus Horatio Caraway. Hattie followed her fiancé back to rural Arkansas where she worked as a schoolteacher and supported Thaddeus’s political aspirations (remind you of anyone?). Thus, when she decided to run in the general election in the fall of 1932 to retain her appointed Senate seat — shocking her daunting field of male rivals as well as voters — she not only possessed courage, wit and a strong message, she also knew how to play the political game. To that end she accepted the help of powerful Democratic Louisiana Governor Huey Long, a populist who had Presidential aspirations and who saw a chance to gain support from Arkansas voters by backing a fresh and attractive candidate. The two toured the state together and the result was that Hattie won reelection, crushing the opposition.
As a Senator in her own right, Hattie was a staunch supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal because it benefitted her agricultural state. During her first full term, Hattie seconded President Roosevelt’s nomination for reelection at the 1936 Democratic National Convention and cosponsored the Equal Rights Amendment. As a Southern woman, however, Hattie held some positions that clashed with Roosevelt’s. Regardless, she always put the farmers and unions of her state first, thus gaining their support as well as the support of women. With the wind at her back, she won another reelection in 1938.
Hattie lost her bid for a third Senate term to Representative J. William Fulbright in 1944. In her post-Senate life, she was appointed by President Roosevelt to the Employees’ Compensation Commission and later by President Truman to the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board.
By following through on her belief that women were just as entitled to a voice and a vote in the U.S. Congress as were men, Hattie Caraway blazed a trail for women to follow her, even though forces have conspired to make it slower going than we would like. In today’s 115th Congress, which convened on January 3, 2017, women represent only 21% of the Senate and only 19% of the House. Congress represents the American people, and women must achieve equal representation there in order to achieve full equality in society at large.
To read more about Senator Hattie Caraway, check out these sources: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Wikipedia, United States Senate Painting and Senator Hattie Caraway: An Arkansas Legacy, by Nancy Hendricks.
Until next time,