By Jenny Horn
Not everyone can place Hattie W. Caraway’s name at first glance, and not many today could tell you of her accomplishments, but her tenure as the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate remains a crucial point in our history today.
Winning a special election to the Senate in 1931 following the death of her husband, Democratic Senator Thaddeus Caraway, Hattie W. Caraway stunned her male-counterparts by announcing her plans to run in the 1932 general election. Though common for a widow to “temporarily” take her husband’s seat in the Senate to allow the “real” (i.e., male) candidates time to prepare their own campaigns, no woman before had made the move towards a more permanent seat through the general elections.
Caraway knew she would be drawing historical paths for women in years to come just by running in the general election, but ultimately decided to run on the premise that the United States could be better served by an “average” individual who knew the price of milk, bread, and butter, who recognized there were people who had none, and who could uphold the integrity of the American public as opposed to the more “manicured men” of the reigning Senate. Additionally, 1932 saw the Dow Jones hit its lowest point during the Great Depression, and desperate constituents in Arkansas cared less that she was a woman and more that she seemed to care and provide real, tangible aid.
With the help of her three sons and Louisiana politician Huey Long, Caraway had the support she needed to successfully run her campaign. Long had taken a genuine liking to Caraway after spending a considerable amount of time sitting next to her in the back of the Senate during her interim period of severance and figured he had nothing to lose by throwing his support behind her. Ultimately, Caraway won the 1932 election for a full term in the Senate, earning more total votes than all six men who ran against her combined.
Once in office, Caraway was quickly nicknamed “Silent Hattie” as she rarely, if ever, delivered the roaring declamations her male colleagues were accustomed to delivering, and instead let her record speak for itself. She worked relentlessly, earning a reputation as one of the most effective public servants during exceedingly troubling times of the Great Depression and World War II, and some of her best work arose during her time in committee, wherein the smaller setting she could better persuade others in regards to what kind of funding and action was needed to provide service to the American people.
Hattie W. Caraway proved that she had as good a sense as anyone in the Senate, and the voters of Arkansas stood by her when they re-elected her in 1938. It was then that she became not only the first woman to be elected to the Senate, but also the first to be re-elected – to note, during her tenure in the Senate, she also became the first woman to preside over the Senate, chair a Senate committee, and lead a Senate hearing. While it was never easy to be the only woman in the room and her position often felt isolating as her male colleagues would at times dismiss or ignore her, she held her own and continued onward in her many obligations to the American people. Notably, in 1943, she co-sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment – legislation that at the time, had been introduced in Congress 11 times and failed each time. Today, Caraway is fondly remembered as one of the Amendment’s first Congressional supporters.
On her final day in the Senate in 1945, Caraway’s service earned her a rare standing ovation by her all-male colleague counterparts, and in the years since her death in 1950, the struggles and trials Caraway endured as the sole woman in the Senate have become better understood. However, the challenging realities she faced of sexism, misogyny, underestimation – and at times, sheer disregard – did not impede her drive to best serve the very people she represented. While not necessarily a household name, Hattie W. Caraway’s history and work in the Senate 90 years ago remain poignant today, and on the anniversary of her election to the Senate, it is important that we recognize her as one of the earliest women who paved the way for so many other working women today.