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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Hattie Caraway

This posting discusses a chapter from my work-in-progress, Congressional Lions, involving Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, the first woman elected to serve a full term in the United States Senate.

The diminutive Caraway was an unlikely member of Congress. Born Hattie Ophelia Wyatt on a farm near Bakerville, Tennessee, on February 1, 1878, she was one of four children of farmer William Carroll Wyatt and his wife, Lucy Mildred Wyatt. Hattie was interested in pursuing a college education in a time when few women moved beyond high school. After briefly attending Ebenezer College in Hustburg, Pennsylvania, she enrolled in the Dickson Normal College in Tennessee at the age of 14. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1896.

While Hattie was attending Dickson, she met her future husband, Thaddeus Horatius Caraway. He was politically ambitious, a self-made man who desired a public career. Because legal training frequently served as a gateway into politics, he studied law and won admission to the Arkansas State Bar Association in 1900. Caraway set up a law practice in Lake City, a small community in Craighead County near Jonesboro, Arkansas. He married Hattie Wyatt in 1902. The couple eventually reared three sons, Robert, Paul, and Forrest, all of whom attended to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The Caraways moved to Jonesboro so that Thaddeus could practice law on a larger stage. After five years working in his law firm, Caraway and Lamb, he ran for a position as the prosecuting attorney for the Second Judicial District. He was elected in 1908 and reelected in 1910.

Having earned a reputation as a man of integrity, Thaddeus Caraway announced his candidacy for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Arkansas’ First Congressional District. He won the election and eventually served four terms in the House. He later won a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Thaddeus Caraway’s life and career ended abruptly. Suffering from a kidney stone, the senator entered Saint Vincent’s Infirmary in Little Rock for routine surgery. Surgeons removed the stone on October 29, 1931, and the senator appeared to be on the road to a full recovery. It was not to be. He remained inside the hospital recuperating when calamity struck. As one newspaper recounted, “He underwent an operation on Oct. 29 and his recovery appeared certain. At no time was his physician alarmed at his condition. Laughter and happy conversation with his wife preceded by only a few minutes his sudden complaint of ‘terrible pains.’ Mrs. Caraway stepped from the room for a moment and returned on the call of the nurse to find her husband dead.” Thaddeus Caraway, sixty years old, died from a blood clot in the coronary artery on November 6, 1931.

After Thaddeus Caraway’s death, Arkansas Governor Harvey Parnell appointed Hattie to fill her husband’s seat for the remainder of the term. It was a long-standing tradition that a widow would complete her dead husband’s term and retire, but Hattie Caraway broke tradition. She announced that she would campaign for her own term. She won a special election in January 1932 and then kept her seat during the 1932 and 1938 elections before losing in 1944.

Her first campaign received much-needed support from a seemingly unlikely source: Senator Huey P. Long from neighboring Louisiana. Nicknamed the “Kingfish” (borrowed from a character who led the Mystic Knights of the Sea in the popular radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy), Long was a colorful poor-boy-made-good who ascended from the depths of poverty to become governor of Louisiana, a United States senator, and a populist long-shot presidential aspirant. He was a polarizing figure, with some supporters viewing him as a savior of the masses while his numerous detractors argued that he was alternately an embarrassing buffoon and a dangerous demagogue that stirred up class resentments with false promises he could never fulfill. For rural people who felt that condescending elites either patronized or ignored them, the Kingfish was a genuine American hero.

Long’s endorsement in the 1932 Arkansas Senate race came at a propitious time. Hattie Caraway was campaigning without much success. Her lackluster pleas for contributions had done little to fill her empty campaign coffers. “Guess my political life is nearly over,” she mused. “I’m in for crucifixion.”

The 1932 Arkansas Senate campaign, featuring Hattie Caraway and her guest star, Huey P. Long, was a rollicking affair. The Kingfish was a master showman. On August 1, 1932, he rolled into Arkansas leading an entourage of limousines and Louisiana state troopers riding motorcycles. He met up with the candidate at dawn. A throng turned out in Magnolia, Arkansas, the first stop on their itinerary. Senator Long marched around on a makeshift stage, waving his arms frantically, speaking in a staccato, rapid-fire voice that alternately amused and excited the audience. “I’m here to get a bunch of pot-bellied politicians off this little woman’s neck,” he screeched, much to the crowd’s delight. As the caravan departed, a local official wired a warning to his friends in Little Rock. “A cyclone just went through here and is headed your way. Very few trees left standing.”

The crowds grew larger at each stop, often numbering in the thousands. The appearances resembled a county fair, drawing residents from many miles away. The men, women, and children congregated to watch the show as a form of entertainment.

The Caraway-Long caravan covered more than 2,000 miles. Huey Long delivered 39 speeches in 31 counties in seven days and seven nights to more than 200,000 Arkansans. When they streamed to the polls on August 9, 1932, voters overwhelming returned their incumbent senator to Washington. Hattie Caraway earned 127, 202 votes while her closest opponent, O. L. Bodenhamer, collected 64,000. Vincent Miles captured third place with 30,000 votes, and the former governor, Charles H. Brough, earned a paltry 26,000 votes.

And so Hattie Caraway became a full-fledged United States senator.

During her tenure, she supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. She also towed the white southern line by opposing anti-lynching bills that came before the Senate. She considered herself a workhorse and not a show-horse, seldom speaking in the well of the Senate, but always preparing diligently before a debate. When “Silent Hattie” was castigated for remaining quiet, she wryly observed that she did not wish “to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.” Although she was never a leader in the Senate, her service demonstrated that a woman could capably represent constituent interests in the halls of power.

She lost her 1944 reelection bid. With her career in elective office behind her, Hattie Caraway searched for a new challenge. President Roosevelt finally appointed her to the Employees’ Compensation Commission, an agency created by the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act to review disability claims filed by federal civil servants. Her service was brief. After a government reorganization abolished the commission in 1946, President Truman appointed her to the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board. She held that position until she suffered a stroke in January 1950. Caraway died in Falls Church, Virginia, later that year, on December 21, and was buried in Oaklawn Cemetery in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Hattie Caraway is remembered today not for her legislative accomplishments, which were few, but for her desire to serve on her own right in the United States Senate, a bastion of male privilege. To recognize the trailblazing nature of her service, on February 21, 2001, the United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp in her honor. Her gravesite is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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