News & History

HISTORY MINUTE: Hattie Caraway a pioneer in Ark. politics

By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian

Hattie Caraway was not going to stay quiet. Her husband dead only a few months and already having had to fight an election to keep his seat in the United States Senate, the nation’s only woman Senator was determined not to be ignored and pushed aside.

Her husband of 29 years, Thaddeus Caraway, was popular congressman and US Senator from northeastern Arkansas. Hattie Caraway had proudly stood by his side as his career advanced and was heartbroken by his sudden death by a heart attack on Nov. 6, 1931. One week later, Gov. Harvey Parnell appointed her as interim US Senator, not expecting she would seek a full term.

She assumed office on December 8, overwhelmed by the events that had transformed her life in just a few short weeks. The appointment of widows to political offices was not without precedent. It had happened at the local level fairly often in the late 1800s, even for such offices as sheriff. It was considered a show of respect for the deceased but also an opportunity to help a widow make a living for her surviving family in a time before pensions.

Rebecca Felton of Georgia had been the first woman to serve in the U. S. Senate, serving only for a day in 1922. When Hattie Caraway arrived, she was the only woman in the chamber.

Caraway and her husband had made a formidable political couple in Jonesboro for many years. They were both former teachers and like-minded reformers. Where Thaddeus Caraway was outspoken, Hattie Caraway chose her words carefully. She understood that most of the Senate’s decisions were made in powerful committee meetings and quiet discussions with individual senators. She was careful not to try to upstage anyone. This perplexed many members of the media who had dismissed her as “Silent Hattie” for her lack of speeches in the Senate.

She won the election to serve the remainder of her husband’s Senate term in January with little trouble. In May, the all-important Democratic Primary would be held for the next term. It was the presidential election year of 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression. Several men were anxious to move into the Senate, and many expected Caraway to simply step aside. Caraway, while she presided over the Senate one day, instead announced she would seek a full term.

Arkansas had been slightly ahead of the rest of the nation with women’s rights. In 1917, Arkansas allowed women to vote in the Democratic primaries, which essentially decided almost every state and local election in those days. Now the state had appointed the second woman ever to the United States Senate, but no woman had ever been elected to that body. This was an age in which many Americans were still opposed to women even voting and many colleges still blocked the enrollment of women.

Women came forward across the state to support Caraway. She established nurseries at rallies so women could hear her speeches and not have to worry about child care. The popular Louisiana Sen. Huey Long campaigned energetically with her in the week before the election, adding to her credibility. She would win 68 counties and win the general election easily.

As a senator, she backed many reforms. She also supported Prohibition, determined to end the problems of overdoses, deadly accidents by drunken husbands, and though it was still only discussed in hushed whispers, domestic violence. She would also be the first woman to chair a Senate committee. She was re-elected in 1938, narrowly winning the primary against future Senator John L. McClellan. In 1943, she would be the first woman member of Congress to co-sponsor the Equal Rights Amendment, determined that the rights of women should be forever protected. The amendment, however, would not pass Congress until 1972 before it went on to an uncertain ratification process with the states.

She lost re-election in 1944, losing to U. S. Rep. J. William Fulbright. Though three other women had briefly joined her as Senators during her tenure, she was the only woman in the Senate when she left. However, by choosing to run for election on her own — and winning twice — she opened the door for other women in the future.

In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her to serve on the Employees’ Compensation Commission, a position she would serve in until 1950. She died at her home in Virginia in December 1950 at age 72. In 2022, 24 women now serve in the US Senate, thanks in part to the quiet Arkansas woman who stayed silent no more.

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