By Dr. Curtis Varnell
The ideal that government was a man’s job changed dramatically when Hattie Caraway became the first elected woman to ever set foot in the Senate. She joined what has been called the “World’s Most Exclusive Club” when she was appointed to take her recently deceased husbands Arkansas Senate seat after his death in 1931. At the time, most people felt that she was given to appointment so that it would give the men time to work out who would run for the seat in 1932. Caraway surprised everyone!! She realized after a short stint in office that anyone that truly cared for their constituents, stayed awake at their desks, and worked hard could do just as well as many of the men who spent most of their time presenting bombastic speeches. Known as Silent Hattie, she believed in speaking briefly with well-chosen words and once stated she had no desire to waste taxpayer money printing up long speeches in the Congressional Record. Surprising everyone, she defeated six male opponents, thus becoming the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
Caraway was seen as a proponent for the poor and needy. She once stated, “My philosophy of legislation, and really on life, is to be broad-minded enough to consider human relationships and the well-being of all the people as worthy of consideration, to realize that all human beings are entitled to earn, so far as possible, their daily bread, and to try to prevent the exploitation of the underprivileged.” Serving on the important agriculture committee, she provided invaluable assistance to rural Arkansan’s seeking work. A good friend of Franklin Roosevelt, she supported most of the New Deal legislation in order to get people, especially her constituents, back to work. During his campaigns, she accompanied Roosevelt as he whistle-stopped across Arkansas in a railcar, stopping at Little Rock, Hot Springs, Booneville, and Fort Smith to deliver short-speeches as he traveled across America.
There were rewards for her efforts. With Roosevelt’s support, Caraway was able to secure funding from Camp Robinson, Fort Chaffee, the two Japanese relocation centers, five airbases, a defense ordnance plant, and the aluminum factories for the state.
Caraway won re-election in 1938, defeating John McClellan whose campaign slogan was “We need another man in the Senate.” It is also interesting that she became the first woman senator to support the Equal Rights Amendment and was one of the sponsors of the legislation that became known as the GI Bill.
Caraway was defeated in 1945 by J. W. Fulbright but left a legacy that continues till today. From a conservative, Southern state, she was able to become the first elected woman senator, the first woman to preside over the senate, and the first woman to chair a committee.
Her legacy and life still resonate with the people of Arkansas. She once stated that no-one that could not tell you the price of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread and didn’t remember that some people had neither should ever be an elected official. She walked the talk, showing up early to work so that she could read the entirety of the previous days Congressional Record while eating her lunch from a brown paper bag she brought from home. Caraway opened the door for women politicians such as Senator Blanche Lincoln and for current first woman governor of the state, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Caraway first ran for office, she ran on the premise that the nation could be served by an average person who knew the price of milk and bread, and who remembered there were people who had none. She walked her talk, carrying her lunch in a brown paper bag, and starting each day by reading every word of the Congressional Record. She never missed a Senate vote or a committee meeting. Nor did she take time away from Congress to campaigns’ money on printing speeches in the Congressional Record.