• Exploring American History

Hattie Caraway – America’s First Woman Senator

On January 12, 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to serve a full term in the United States Senate. Sent there by the state of Arkansas, Hattie was also the first woman to preside over the Senate.

Born in Bakerville, Tennessee on February 1, 1878, Hattie Ophelia Wyatt was the daughter of a farmer/shopkeeper. In spite of her family’s low-income level, Hattie held a strong desire to obtain a greater education than she received from the one-room schoolhouse she attended. The financial blessings of a wealthy aunt made her desires a reality. In 1896, Hattie received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dickson Normal College in Dickson, Tennessee. Following graduation, she became a school teacher.

In 1902, Hattie married her college sweetheart, Thaddeus Caraway. The couple became parents of three sons, two of whom served in the U.S. Army at the rank of general. Settling on a cotton farm in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Thaddeus established a law practice while Hattie raised the children and made a home for the family.

In 1912, Thaddeus ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and won. The family now established a second home in Riversdale Park, Maryland. Representative Caraway served five terms, then became a senator in 1921.

In 1931, Senator Caraway died in office. At that time, it was common for the widow of a congressman/senator to assume her husband’s seat until his replacement was found; thus Arkansas Governor Harvey Parnell appointed Hattie to the vacant seat and she was sworn in on December 9, 1931. When the special election to fill the seat was held, Hattie ran and received the support of Arkansas’s Democratic Party. She won the election and became the first woman to be elected to the Senate.

Hattie served out the rest of Thaddeus’s term, and then announced her candidacy for re-election for a full Senate term. Former Arkansas Governor, now Senator Huey Long, supported her candidacy. With Long’s help, Hattie received almost twice the number of votes of her opponent. Hattie now became not only the first woman senator to win a full term; she also became the first to chair a committee. She would add an additional first to her collection when she won re-election six years later.

In January 1950, Hattie suffered a stroke. She died on December 21 of that same year in Falls Creek, Virginia. The small woman who always dressed in black after her husband died was taken home to Jonesboro, Arkansas. There she was laid to rest in Oaklawn Cemetery.

On February 21, 2001, a 76-cent stamp was issued in her honor by the United States Postal Service as part of the “Distinguished American” series. In 2007, her gravesite was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“If I can hold on to my sense of humor and a modicum of dignity, I shall have a wonderful time running for office whether I get there or not.” Hattie Ophelia Caraway

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