Elected to the U.S. Senate in early 1931 to complete her late husband's term, Hattie Wyatt Caraway (1878-1950) won election to a full six-year term in 1932 (and again in 1938) to become the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate in her own right.
Hattie Wyatt Caraway was born on February 1, 1878, near Bakersville, Tennessee. When she was four years old, in 1882, her family moved to nearby Hustburg, Tennessee, where Hattie grew up working on the family farm and waiting on customers in her father's general store. A bright girl, she had already learned the alphabet before attending a nearby one-room school-house and entered Dickson (Tennessee) Normal College at the age of 14.
At Dickson she met Thaddeus Horatio Caraway, a fellow student several years older than she. She earned a B.A. degree in 1896. After graduation, Hattie, by now engaged to Thaddeus, set out to teach school. The couple married in 1902, after Thaddeus earned his law degree. They settled in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where Hattie gave birth to two sons, Paul Wyatt and Forrest, and managed the house while her husband established a legal and political career.
Thaddeus Caraway was elected to the United States Congress in 1912. While in Washington, D.C., Hattie gave birth to their third son, Robert Easley. She maintained their home in Washington, raising their children, seldom socializing outside the family, and leaving the business of politics to her husband. A Democrat, Thaddeus was elected to the Senate in 1920. A staunch supporter of his poor-white farm constituency, Thaddeus was reelected in 1926 but suffered a blood clot after kidney stone surgery and died unexpectedly in 1931, not completing his term.
Arkansas law required a special election to elect a senator to complete Caraway's term. In the interim Governor Harvey Parnell appointed Hattie to the post out of respect for her husband. Hattie Caraway entered the 72nd Congress in December 1931 with a commission from the governor to occupy her husband's Senate seat until the special election, called for January 1932.
The Arkansas Democratic Committee, unable to agree on a candidate for the special election, ended up nominating Hattie as a compromise. In Arkansas, part of the Democratic "Solid South," the Democratic nomination assured Hattie's election. Governor Parnell supported her with the understanding that she would step aside and make way for his candidacy in the election of 1932. In these strange circumstances Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the Senate. As an historic "first," this shy, quiet, at times awkward, 54-year-old housewife became the subject of enormous publicity. One journalist called her "one of the most visible women in America."
In sharp contrast to her voluble husband, Caraway would sit in the Senate chamber knitting or reading while she listened politely to the endless speeches. Despite her apparent diffidence, she was determined to continue her husband's work, to vote, as he would have, in unswerving support of the interests of the poor farm people now suffering through the deepening Great Depression.
As the deadline approached in Arkansas to announce candidacy for the regular senatorial election in 1932, seven men, including Governor Parnell, prepared to run for "Fighting Thad" Caraway's Senate seat. They were dumbstruck when, at the very last moment, Hattie's application to run for the Senate arrived in Little Rock by special delivery. One opponent was quoted as saying that out of the estimated 300,000 votes, "she might receive 3,000" from feminists and personal friends.
Hattie found a powerful friend and champion in her neighbor in the Senate, the junior senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long. Caraway supported Long's proposals for tax reform and redistribution of wealth to the farm poor. She launched her campaign with much fanfare but little success until Long arrived in Arkansas and in one week stumped with her across the state. Caraway visited 31 counties, giving 39 speeches and personally addressing more than 200,000 people. She won the Democratic primary, receiving 44.7 percent of the vote. In November 1932 Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to a full six-year term in the United States Senate.
With a Democratic president in the White House, Senator Caraway worked devotedly if quietly in support of most of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. As a member of the Agriculture and Forestry Committee she was well positioned to help her people in Arkansas. "These are matters I know something about," she said. "You can tell by looking at me that I'm a farm woman."
In 1938 she edged out her opponent, whose slogan blatantly proclaimed, "Arkansas needs another man in the Senate," winning her second full term, this time without the aid of Huey Long, who had been assassinated in 1935. Caraway opposed Lend Lease for fear it would lead to war and defended local control against the president's policy to end the poll tax, which had disqualified many African-Americans in Arkansas from voting. But once World War II was declared she did much to help the grieving relatives of war victims and continued as one of Roosevelt's faithful backers.
Caraway lost the Democratic primary in her bid for a third term in 1944, but did not retire from politics. President Roosevelt named her to the Employees Compensation Commission and later to the Employees Compensation Appeals Board. Known forever as the first woman senator, if not for her forceful leadership, Senator Caraway's assessment of women in politics was characteristically simple and to the point. In 1943 she endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (first introduced two decades earlier) by declaring, "There is no sound reason why women, if they have the time and ability, shouldn't sit with men on city councils, in state legislatures, and on Capitol Hill. Particularly if they have ability!" On December 22, 1950, Hattie Caraway suffered a stroke and died at the age of 72.
For additional information on Hattie Caraway see Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (1973); Diane D. Kincaid, ed., Silent Hattie Speaks, the Personal Journal of Senator Hattie Caraway (1979); George Creel, "The Woman Who Holds Her Tongue," Colliers (September 18, 1937); and Hermann B. Deutsch, "Hattie and Huey," Saturday Evening Post (October 15, 1932).
Caraway, Hattie Wyatt, Silent Hattie speaks: the personal journal of Senator Hattie Caraway, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.