HATTIE WYATT CARAWAY (D-Arkansas) became the first woman elected to the United States Senate on January 12, 1932. Caraway was born February 1, 1878 in Tennessee. She had a middle class upbringing; her father was a farmer and shopkeeper; her mother took care of the children and the home. Caraway graduated from Dickson Normal College in 1896, and taught school for a few years before she married Thaddeus Horatius Caraway in 1902. She and Thaddeus moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas where Hattie stayed home with the couple’s three children and Thaddeus practiced law and pursued a political career.
In 1912, Thaddeus Caraway was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He held that office until be elected to the United States Senate in 1921. Thaddeus died in office during his second term in the Senate, and as the tradition was to appoint the widow to temporarily replace the husband, Hattie was appointed to the vacant seat. She was sworn into office on December 9, 1931, and easily won the special election to complete her husband’s term. Hattie Caraway had avoided much of the social and political activity in the capital, and had not been at all involved in the campaign for woman’s suffrage, so had little experience. She had however, worked on her husband’s campaigns and often spoke on his behalf in Arkansas.
Caraway shocked the Democratic party when she decided to run for a full term. This had to have been a tough decision for her because she knew she would not have the support of the Arkansas political establishment. Caraway explained, “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.” In the Democratic Primary she faced she faced a large field of contenders including a former governor and a former U.S. Senator. Caraway did have the support however, of Louisiana Senator and political boss Huey Long, who brought an entourage across state lines to campaign for her. “We’re out here to pull a lot of pot-bellied politicians off a little woman’s neck,” Long told audiences. “She voted with you people and your interests in spite of all the pressure Wall Street could bring to bear. This brave little woman Senator stood by you.” In the end, Caraway beat her six opponents in the Democratic primary. She easily won the general election with a 9 to 1 margin over her Republican opponent.
Caraway was known as “Silent Hattie” because she spoke on the floor of the Senate only 15 times in her career. She once explained this by saying, “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.” Caraway was a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and even though she had reservations about American intervention into World War II she backed Roosevelt’s declaration of war after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. She didn’t like lobbyists, and she was an avowed prohibitionist.
In 1933, Caraway was named Chair of the Enrolled Bills Committee, the first woman ever to Chair a Senate Committee. She was also the first woman ever to preside over the Senate. Caraway was the first woman to endorse and vote for the Lucretia Mott Equal Rights Amendment in 1943. She was not however progressive when it came to race issues. She voted against the anti-lynching law of 1938, and also joined in a filibuster to block a bill that would have eliminated the poll tax.
Caraway’s popularity among voters eventually waned. In 1944 she was defeated in the Arkansas Democratic primary by J. William Fulbright. Caraway remained in the capital after her defeat and served under Roosevelt as a member of the Federal Employees Compensation Commission. She was elevated under Truman to the Commission’s Appeal Board, where she served until her death in Falls Church, Virginia on December 21, 1950. In 2001 the United States Post Office honored Caraway by issuing a 76 cent “Distinguished Person” series postage stamp in her name.