The First Woman Elected to the United States Senate: Hattie Caraway
The first woman ever elected to serve a full term as United States Senator was Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway. While the first woman to ever serve on the United States Senate was Rebecca Felton, she only served for a single day in 1922. Caraway served from 1931-1945 with support from Senator Huey Long, who helped her earn the vote.
Hattie Ophelia Wyatt was born on February 1, 1978 to farmer and shopkeeper William Carroll Wyatt and Lucy Mildred Burch in Bakerville, Tennessee. When she was four, the family moved to Hutsburg, Tennessee where she briefly attended Ebenezer College. Wyatt soon transferred to Dickson Normal College in Tennessee. In 1896, the 28 year old Hattie received a B.A. degree. Prior to her marriage, she taught school.
During college, Hattie Wyatt met Thaddeus Caraway and the two were married in 1902. Together they had three sons – Paul, Forrest, and Robert – and settled in Jonesboro, Arkansas. As Hattie Caraway cared for the children while tending to the household and gardens and overseeing their cotton farm, Thaddeus Caraway established his own legal practice. Two of their sons, Paul and Forrest, would go on to become generals in the United States Army.
Eventually, the Caraways would establish a second home located in Riverdale Park, Maryland called Riversdale. In 1912, Thaddeus Caraway was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he would serve until 1921 when he became a United States Senator from Arkansas. Thaddeus Caraway died at 60 on November 6, 1931 while still in office. At the time, men who died in office were temporarily replaced by their widows. So, Caraway took over her husbands spot for a month and was sworn in on December 9, 1931.
The Arkansas Democratic party backed her up and helped her to easily win the special election in January 1932 to finish up her husband’s term. Hattie Caraway was the first woman ever elected to the United States Senate. She strayed away from the social and political life in the capital, though taking an interest to her husband’s political career. Caraway even made sure to avoid the women’s suffrage movement. “After equal suffrage I just added voting to cooking and sewing and other household duties,” Caraway recalled later on in her life.
When Caraway announced that she was going to run for a full term in the upcoming election, she surprised many Arkansas politicians. Most had thought that she would step aside once she finished up her husband’s term. “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,” was what she told reporters who questioned her about it. Vice President Charles Curtis asked her to preside over the Senate, and Caraway took the opportunity to announce she was running for reelection. Not only was Caraway the first female senator to preside over the senate, but she was also the first female senator to chair a committee, the Senate Committee on Enrolled Bills.
Senator Huey Long, the populist Louisiana politician, traveled to Arkansas to campaign for Caraway for nine days. Because she did not have any significant political backing, Caraway accepted Long’s help. Caraway had supported Long’s efforts to limit incomes and increase aid for the poor as well. Long had been motivated by sympathy for Caraway as a widow along with ambition to extend his influence in Arkansas, the home to his political rival Senate Joseph Robinson. He had a colorful, flamboyant style of campaigning and brought it with him to Arkansas. He and Caraway spent a week campaigning before the Democratic primary. With his help, she had gained nearly twice as many votes as her opponent and won the general election that November.
While in the Senate, her committee assignments included Agriculture and Forestry, Commerce, and Enrolled Bills on top of chairing Library. Throughout her political career, Caraway found herself interested in flood control, relief for farmers, and veterans’ benefits. She voted on nearly every New Deal measure between 1933-38. Caraway was loyal to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but not when it came to racial issues. She joined other southerners in 1938 by filibustering the administration’s new bill on anti-lynching. Though she had prepared herself for working in the Senate, Caraway rarely spoke or speeches on the Senate floor. She gained a reputation of being both an honest and sincere Senator.
Representative John Little McClellan challenged her for reelection in 1938 and it was a tough fight for her. McClellan’s argument was that a man could promote the state’s interests more effectively than a woman. Many employees for the government, women’s groups, and unions backed her up, helping her to narrowly win in the primary. In the general election, the Democrat Caraway won with 89.4 percent, nearly 90, of the vote over Republican C.D. Atkinson.
There were never more than two women in the body of the Senate during Caraway’s time, Rose McConnell Long, Dixie Bibb Graves, and Gladys Pyle all served for brief periods of two years or left in the Senate, never overlapping. As early as 1931, it was clear she was conscious that women were at a disadvantage. Caraway had even taken the same desk at the Senate as Rebecca Felton—who had served for a day when her husband died in 1922 as the first widow to ever take her husband’s place. “I guess they wanted as few of them contaminated as possible,” she privately commented in response to being given the desk. Caraway cosponsored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1943, the first female legislator to do so.
She supported Roosevelt’s foreign policy, and with her perspective as a mother with two sons in the U.S. Army, she argued for his lend-lease bill. Caraway encouraged women to contribute to the war effort as World War II was going on, insisting that a woman’s primary task was not caring for the home and family.
Caraway placed fourth in the reelection of 1944 in the Democratic primary. She lost her senate seat to J. William Fulbright, the young former president of the University of Arkansas. At this point he already had a national reputation after serving on the United States House of Representatives for one term from 1943-1945. Roosevelt appointed her to the Employees’ Compensation Commission after she lost the reelection and left the Senate on January 3, 1945. President Harry Truman gave her an Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board post in 1946. For four years, Caraway served at this post.
In January of 1950, Caraway suffered a severe stroke and left the post. On December 21, 1950, seventy-two year old Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway passed away in Falls Church, Virginia. She is buried in Jonesboro, Arkansas in Oaklawn Cemetery.