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October 19, 1943
A Woman Presides over the Senate

Hattie Caraway by John Oliver Buckley

On October 19, 1943, for the first time, a woman formally took up the gavel as the Senate's acting president pro tempore. In the absence of the vice president and the president pro tempore, the secretary of the Senate read a letter assigning the duties of the chair to Arkansas Democrat Hattie Caraway.

The first woman elected to the Senate, Caraway had presided once before. On May 9, 1932, she briefly filled in for the resting vice president, Charles Curtis, but there was no official recognition of the event. Caraway made no statement on the floor, issued no ruling, and no formal transfer of power occurred. The precedent did not go unnoticed in the press gallery, however, and small notices appeared in news coverage of the day. Other precedents followed, including becoming the first woman to chair a Senate committee in 1933. Thus, by 1943, Senator Caraway had become accustomed to breaking the Senate's gender barriers.

Hattie Caraway entered the Senate in November 1931, by gubernatorial appointment, following the death of her husband, Senator Thaddeus Caraway. She then ran successfully for election to the remaining months of her husband's term, assuring state party leaders that she had no interest in running for the subsequent full term.

Senator Caraway rarely spoke on the Senate floor and soon became known as "Silent Hattie." Tourists in the Senate galleries always noticed the woman senator in the dark Victorian-style dress, sitting quietly at her desk knitting or completing crossword puzzles. When asked why she avoided speeches, she quipped, "the men have left nothing unsaid."

In May 1932, she changed her mind and declared her candidacy for a full term. Several of her six male competitors joked that she would be lucky to attract 1 percent of the vote. What they failed to consider was the budding interest of her Senate seat-mate, Louisiana's Huey Long. Long detested Caraway's Arkansas colleague, Senate Democratic Leader Joseph T. Robinson, and deeply appreciated her inclination to vote with him rather than with Robinson.

Senator Long expressed his gratitude by joining Caraway for an extraordinary week-long, 2,000-mile, 40-speech campaign tour through 37 Arkansas communities. Their seven-vehicle caravan included two sound trucks allowing him to proclaim, "We're here to pull a lot of pot-bellied politicians off a little woman's neck." Caraway won the election with double the vote of her nearest rival. Her diligent Senate service and effective advocacy of New Deal legislative initiatives won her another term in 1938. That path-breaking career concluded in 1945, following a primary defeat by Representative J. William Fulbright. On her final day in office, the Senate tendered Hattie Caraway the high honor of a standing ovation.

Reference Items:

Malone, David.  Hattie and Huey: An Arkansas Tour.  Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989.  

Kincaid, Diane, ed. Silent Hattie Speaks: The Personal Journal of Senator Hattie Caraway.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.


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