The Accidental First Female Senator

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hattie Caraway wasn’t supposed to become a U.S. Senator. But when she did, she became the first woman to be elected to that office ever. How did a woman without an interest in serving in public office end up making history, anyway?

Call it a combination of bad luck and sheer doggedness. Caraway was a schoolteacher when she married Thaddeus Caraway, an Arkansas Democrat who worked his way from prosecutor to Congressman to Senator. But in 1931, at the age of 60, he developed a blood clot and dropped dead.

This was not just a tragic bereavement for Hattie, but a death that triggered something so common it became known as “the widow’s succession.” In 1922, John Nolan had won a sixth congressional term, but died soon afterwards. In January 1923, his widow, Mae Ella Nolan, had won a special election to fill the vacated congressional seat as well as serve the full term he had been elected to before his death. This set a precedent within the House of Representatives that allowed women, many of whom already closely advised their husbands and came from powerful political families, to help provide a smooth transition without causing the need for party leaders to scramble for a replacement.

There had already been a woman Senator, too—the outspoken suffragette Rebecca Latimer, who, at 87, was sworn in as Senator and served a symbolic 24-hour term after being appointed as an interim senator by a governor who wanted to appease women voters for having voted against women’s suffrage. But Latimer didn’t really serve.

On the first day Caraway walked into the Senate, she supposedly declared that “the windows need washing!” But Caraway took her temporary position as Senator for the state of Arkansas seriously—so seriously that she decided not to step aside once a special election could be held. Instead, on January 12, 1932, she ran for, and won, her husband’s old seat on her own merits, making her the first woman elected to the Senate. And she decided to run for the seat again in that year’s November election.

“I am going to fight for my place in the sun,” she told reporters and her surprised colleagues. And fight she did. Caraway had an ace in her pocket: Louisiana senator Huey Long, whom her husband had long supported.  With a little over a week to go before the Democratic primary, Long and Caraway went on a week-long tour of Arkansas, making such an impression that she won handily, carrying almost 45 percent of the vote despite being expected to win just 2000 votes. In 1930s Arkansas, winning the Democratic primary was virtually the same thing as winning the election, which she did by a 9-1 margin.

Now that she was in the Senate on her own merits, Caraway got down to business. She was primarily a Roosevelt Democrat, supporting most New Deal policies. Though women had only recently won the vote, her political sympathies didn’t extend to politically oppressed people of color. In 1938, she voted against an anti-lynching law and even called it “a gratuitous insult to the South.” (While she was opposed to lynchings, she was concerned this bill was designed to “destroy the South not only as a political entity but as a business threat.”)

Caraway won the Democratic primary by a slim margin in 1938, but failed to regain her nomination in 1944. Still, she earned a reputation as a hardworking, mainly quiet presence in the Senate. “Silent Hattie” became a legend for what she didn’t say—she spoke on the floor of the Senate just 15 times during her career—as much as for her quick wit and withering quips. (Her most famous quote: “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.”)

But though she traded on her femininity when it was to her advantage—like when Huey Long painted her as a meek woman being trampled upon by politicians—she also had a pragmatic view of a woman’s role in Congress. “Women are essentially practical because they’ve always had to be,” she said. “And women are much more realistic than men, particularly when it comes to public questions.” Translation: Caraway would probably have managed to show up for work after a major snowstorm, too.