Hattie Wyatt Caraway (1878 -1950):
The first woman elected to serve a full term as a United States Senator. Senator Caraway represented Arkansas. She was the first woman to preside over the Senate. She won
re-election to a full term in 1932 with the support of Senator Huey Long.
Hattie Wyatt Caraway served for 14 years in the U.S. Senate and established a number of “firsts,” including her 1932 feat of winning election to the upper chamber of Congress in her own right. Drawing principally from the power of the widow’s mandate and the personal relationships she cultivated with a wide cross–section of her constituency, “Silent Hattie” was a faithful, if staid, supporter of New Deal reforms, which aided her largely agricultural state.
Hattie Ophelia Wyatt was born on February 1, 1878, on a farm near Bakerville, Tennessee. Her parents William Carroll Wyatt, a farmer and shopkeeper, and Lucy Mildred Burch Wyatt raised four children. Hattie Wyatt briefly attended Ebenezer College in Hustburg, Pennsylvania. At age 14 she entered the Dickson (Tennessee) Normal College and received a B.A. in 1896. She taught school for several years in rural Arkansas, along with her Dickson fiancé , Thaddeus Horatio Caraway. The couple married in 1902 and raised three sons, all future West Point cadets: Robert, Paul, and Forrest.1 Thaddeus Caraway rose quickly through the political ranks in Arkansas, serving as a prosecuting attorney, winning election to four terms in the U.S. House and two terms in the U.S. Senate. A fiery orator, he earned the epithets “Fighting Thad” and “Caustic Caraway.”2
Throughout this period, Hattie Caraway’s public role was limited. Behind the scenes, however, friends recalled she played a critical part in her husband’s political career. In 1920, during Thaddeus’s first run for the Senate, Hattie Caraway worked in his campaign headquarters, spoke on his behalf, and received much of the credit for his election. She was her husband’s close political confidante, knew his positions on all important issues affecting Arkansas, and held Thaddeus’s “profound respect” as an adviser.3 While the Caraways tended to avoid social functions in Washington, Hattie often returned home to Arkansas to speak before women’s political groups. Years later, in trying to cultivate votes by appealing to voters’ sympathies for her plight as a “poor, little widow,” Hattie Caraway played down her experience as a congressional wife. “After equal suffrage in 1920,” she recalled, “I just added voting to cooking and sewing and other household duties.”4
On November 6, 1931, Thaddeus Caraway died in office, prompting immediate speculation that his widow would be named to succeed him.5 A few days after his funeral, Governor Harvey Parnell named Caraway’s widow to fill the junior Senator’s seat. “I have appointed Mrs. Caraway as United States Senator because I feel she is entitled to the office held by her distinguished husband, who was my friend,” Parnell explained. “The office belonged to Senator Caraway, who went before the people and received their endorsement for it and his widow is rightfully entitled to the honor.”6 The Washington Post blasted Parnell’s rationale. “Representation in Congress belongs to the people of the State,” the Post editors wrote. “Mrs. Caraway should have been given the appointment on her own merit and not on the basis of sentimentality or family claim upon the seat.”7 Hattie Caraway, however, offered Governor Purnell a safe choice to sidestep choosing from a field of Arkansas politicians who coveted the seat: W.F. Kirby, state supreme court justice; Frank Pace, a lawyer; Hal L. Norwood, state attorney general; and Heartsill Ragon, U.S. Representative. Parnell, whose term as governor expired in January 1933, also was considered a contender for the seat in the 1932 elections.8
On December 8, 1931, Hattie Caraway claimed her Senate seat. Her first observation upon entering the Senate was: “The windows need washing!”9 Thus did the second woman to serve in the Senate enter the upper chamber of Congress. But behind the façade of the dutiful widow was a woman who had every intention of not surrendering her seat to a chosen male successor. Parnell’s endorsement for the Democratic nomination in the one–party Arkansas system guaranteed Hattie Caraway’s election to the remaining 14 months of her husband’s term, which expired in early 1933. Caraway won the special election on January 12, 1932, crushing two Independent candidates with 92 percent of the vote.10 The election forged the creation of the Arkansas Women’s Democratic Club, which threw its support behind Caraway and sought to get out the vote and raise money.
Almost immediately after the special election, Caraway faced the daunting prospect of mounting a re–election campaign in the fall of the 1932 without the support of the Arkansas political establishment. But on May 10, the day of the filing deadline for the August 10 Democratic primary, Caraway shocked Arkansans and her six male contenders by announcing her candidacy. She explained to reporters, “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.”11 She confided in her journal that she planned to test “my own theory of a woman running for office.”12
It was an uphill battle against a field of contenders that included a popular former governor and former U.S. Senator. But Caraway had an important ally in Louisiana Senator and political boss Huey Long, with whom Thaddeus Caraway had often allied and whose legislative proposals Hattie Caraway supported. Long had presidential ambitions and wanted to prove his popularity outside his home state by campaigning in the state of his chief rival, Caraway’s Arkansas colleague, Senate Minority Leader Joseph T. Robinson. On August 1, nine days before the election, the “Kingfish” mobilized a small armada of cars and a host of Louisiana state employees to canvass Arkansas on Caraway’s behalf. Long and Caraway logged more than 2,000 miles and made 39 joint speeches—with the charismatic Louisianan doing most of the talking. “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.”13 For the more than 200,000 people who came out to listen in courthouses, town halls, and city parks, Long effectively portrayed Caraway as a champion of poor white farmers and workers and as a Senator whom the bankers were unable to control.14 In the seven–way primary, Caraway won 44.7 percent of the vote, carrying 61 of the state’s 75 counties.15 Far less surprising was Caraway’s landslide victory in the general election that November: In the one–party, Democratic system she out–polled her hapless Republican rival by a nearly nine–to–one margin.
Known as “Silent Hattie” because she spoke on the floor just 15 times in her career, Caraway nonetheless had a facile wit. She once explained her tendency to avoid speeches: “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.”16 Throughout her 14 years in the Senate, she was a strong supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal reforms, most especially farm relief and flood control. “He fumbles,” Caraway once said of FDR, “but he fumbles forward.”17 She harbored deep reservations about American intervention in World War II but backed Roosevelt’s declaration of war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. She was a strict prohibitionist, a critic of lobbyists, and a sympathetic friend to veterans groups. During her tenure in the Senate, Caraway secured $15 million to construct an aluminum plant in her home state and the first federal loan funding for an Arkansas college. During her second term, she voted several times against the Roosevelt administration when she sided with the farm bloc to override the presidential veto of the Bankhead Farm Price Bill, to restrict the administration’s use of subsidies to lower food prices, and to readjust the price cap on cotton textiles.18 She also proved instrumental in preventing the elimination of an U.S. House seat from Arkansas to reapportionment in 1941 and methodically attended to constituent requests.
Once ensconced in the Senate, Caraway set a number of firsts for women. In 1933, she was named chair of the Enrolled Bills Committee; the first woman ever to chair a Senate committee, she remained there until she left Congress in 1945. Caraway became the first woman to preside over the Senate, the first senior woman Senator (when Joe Robinson died in 1937), and the first woman to run a Senate hearing. She also received assignments on the Commerce Committee and the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.19 It was from the latter that she was most attentive to the needs of her largely rural and agricultural constituency.
Caraway’s record on civil rights was mixed. In one respect she was progressive, as the first woman to endorse and vote for the Lucretia Mott Equal Rights Amendment in 1943—a measure that had been presented to the Senate on 11 prior occasions and which Caraway herself had worked for since 1937.20 Hattie Caraway chafed at the Senate’s institutional prohibitions against women, at one point noting in her journal that she had been assigned the same desk as Felton. “I guess they wanted as few [desks] contaminated as possible,” Caraway quipped.21 Race was another matter entirely, largely because she voted with the unified bloc of her southern colleagues. Caraway voted against the antilynching law of 1938 and, in 1942, joined other southern Senators in a filibuster to block a proposed bill that would have eliminated the poll tax.
Most observers, including some of her supporters, believed Caraway would retire in 1939. But she upset expectations again by declaring her candidacy for the 1938 election. In the Democratic primary, Caraway faced two–term Representative John L. McClellan, a 42–year–old lawyer who declared, “Arkansas Needs Another Man in the Senate.” McClellan adopted the antics and soaring oratory that Huey Long once employed to get Caraway elected.22 Senator Caraway ran on her record of supporting New Deal legislation to alleviate the economic hardships for the state’s largely agrarian economy. Throughout the campaign she was forced to defend not only her gender but her age as well. But she held two advantages. The first was wide name recognition and personal contact with voters, especially women. More importantly, although Huey Long was no longer there to support her, Caraway benefited from the support of the state’s Federal Internal Revenue collector and future Arkansas governor, Homer Atkins. She also garnered endorsements from a number of key federal judges, the federal marshal, and several trade and labor unions and a mild endorsement from President Roosevelt, which she advertised widely.23 In the August 9 primary, which many observers considered another referendum on the New Deal, Caraway prevailed by just 8,000 votes out of more than 260,000 cast.24
Though she went on to win the general election in 1938, it was clear that Caraway spoke even less for the Arkansas political establishment than she had in her first term. By 1944, Caraway faced a tough field of Democratic primary challengers in her bid for renomination. Her campaign was uninspired, and she finished last among the four contenders. The winner, a dynamic freshman Representative and former University of Arkansas president, J. William Fulbright, was eventually elected and served for three decades as one of the Senate’s most influential Members.
Caraway was still a part of the capital city in her post–congressional years. Franklin Roosevelt nominated her in early 1945 as a member of the Federal Employees’ Compensation Commission, where she served for a year. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman elevated her to the commission’s appeals board, where she remained until her death on December 21, 1950, in Falls Church, Virginia.
1Sons’ names cited in an Associated Press article, “Caraway’s Remains Arrive at Old Home,” 9 November 1931, Washington Post: 4.1
2Diane Kincaid, ed., “Silent Hattie Speaks: The Personal Journal of Senator Hattie Caraway” (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979): 6.1
3“Says Widow Favors Taking Caraway Seat,” 10 November 1931, New York Times: 13; “Mrs. Caraway’s Wit Matched Husband’s,” 15 November 1931, Washington Post: N1.
4Current Biography, 1945 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Co., 1945): 89–92.
5Current Biography, 1945: 90.
6“Gov. Parnell Names Mrs. Caraway to Senate; Asks Party to Back Her for Jan. 12 Election,” 14 November 1931, New York Times: 1.
7“A Woman Senator,” 14 November 1931, Washington Post: 6.
8“Mrs. Caraway’s Wit Matched Husband’s.”
9Current Biography, 1945: 90.
10Kincaid, Silent Hattie Speaks: 8–9.
11Susan M. Hartmann, “Caraway, Hattie Ophelia Wyatt,” American National Biography(ANB) 4 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 369–370.
12Quoted in Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Women in Congress(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 50.
13Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women: 50; and Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976): 15.
14After the death of Long, Caraway spoke at the 1941 ceremony in which the Louisiana Senator’s statue was unveiled in National Statuary Hall. She reflected upon their friendship and commented that, “While I did not always agree with Senator Long, I respected his judgment and sincerity of purpose.” Moreover, although grateful for his help during the 1932 campaign, she did not blindly follow his bidding in the Senate. For example, when Long asked her to vote against the World Court, she refused. See the Congressional Record, Senate, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (25 April 1941): 3322–3323.
15Kincaid, Silent Hattie Speaks: 10.
16Current Biography, 1945: 90.
17“Hattie Caraway, Ex–Senator Dies,” Washington Post, December 22, 1950: 1; B2.
18Current Biography, 1945: 91.
19Thaddeus Caraway served on both of these committees during his tenure in the Senate.
20“Amendment for Equal Rights for Women Favorably Reported by Senate Committee,” 24 June 1937, New York Times: 8; “Women in Capital Hail Mrs. Caraway,” 8 December 1931, New York Times: 16.
21Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women: 51.
22Sidney Olson, “Mrs. Caraway Faces Fight in Vote Tuesday,” 6 August 1938,Washington Post: X1. McClellan later went on to win election to the Senate in 1942, where he served for 34 years and eventually chaired the Appropriations Committee.
23Kincaid, Silent Hattie Speaks: 10.
24Olson, “Mrs. Caraway Faces Fight in Vote Tuesday” Sidney Olson, “Machine Bosses Hold Balance in Arkansas Race,” 7 August 1938, Washington Post: M6; “New Dealers Lose 1, Win 2 Senate Tests,” 11 August 1938, Washington Post: 1.
Source: U.S. House of Representatives – http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/44589 (Accessed: August 8, 2016)
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): U.S. House of Representatives (n.d.). Hattie Wyatt Caraway (1878-1950). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/biography/caraway-hattie-wyatt-1878-1950/