The Surprise Success of Senator Hattie Caraway
In 1931, Senator Thaddeus Caraway of Arkansas had been suffering with kidney problems for months and was doing his best to overcome the ordeal. By his side was his wife, Hattie. She was as involved as any political wife, helping with his campaigns and sometimes correspondence, while also raising their three sons and tending Thad while he was ill. Senator Caraway underwent a surgery to remove a kidney stone on 29 October 1931. He seemed to be improving nicely, had been joking with visitors, and was planning to leave in the next few days. Unfortunately, he died suddenly on the evening of 6 November 1931; doctors identified his cause of death as a coronary occlusion. It was a shock. In the aftermath of her husband’s passing, Hattie was tapped to sit in for Thaddeus in the Senate for the short term until a special election could be held. When she accepted the widow’s succession, no one could have guessed that it was the beginning of a significant career.
Thaddeus Caraway and Hattie Wyatt met each other while attending Dickson Normal College in Dickson, Tennessee, just west of Nashville. Thaddeus had been born in Spring Hill, Missouri, on 17 October 1871 to Tolbert and Mary Ellen Caraway. Hattie was the daughter of William and Lucy Wyatt, and had been born near Bakersville, Tennessee on 1 February 1878. After they graduated in 1896, they both began teaching: he in Arkansas and she in Tennessee. Although there isn’t much documented about a long-distance courtship, they must have stayed in touch through letters. The two were married in 1902, and Hattie relocated to Arkansas with Thad. Thaddeus had decided to practice law and they moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas where they had a small cotton farm and Thad built his law experience. Hattie kept the house, managed the farm, and raised their three sons.
Thaddeus Caraway was elected to Congress in 1912, and later was elected to the Senate in 1920. He was seen as a champion of the common man among his constituents in Arkansas, most of whom were farmers and blue-collar folks who relied heavily on his representation in the Senate to fight for relief during floods and droughts as well as during the economic downturn of the Great Depression. He was known for being a fierce debate opponent and a fiery speaker on the floor, while also being an affable member of Senate off the floor, telling jokes and even dressing up like Santa Claus to amuse the young pages at Christmas time. After his funeral, Hattie was approached by the Arkansas Governor, Harvey Parnell, to take the now vacant Senate seat that had been her husband’s. She agreed and in so doing, became the first woman Senator who stayed on longer than a day. (Rebecca Felton of Georgia had been appointed to Senator for 24 hours on 21 November 1922 as a means of honoring her work for the state). One of her first observations after the appointment took effect, perhaps unintentionally yet metaphorically insightful about the position she was taking on, was “the windows need washing.”
After her appointment, Hattie was meant to be a mere seat filler until an election could be held. Newspapers of the day recognized her position as the “first,” while often questioning if she was going to carry on with Thaddeus Caraway’s platform. Perhaps because the public was assured that Hattie was essentially the same as Thad, when the election was held, she won. This made her the first woman elected to the Senate on 12 January 1932. Since this election had been held just for the provision of Caraway’s replacement, the next regular election was to be held in the general election that same year. To the surprise of most, Hattie decided she would run for the seat and she announced those plans from the Senate floor on 10 May 1932. She wrote of her decision, “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 was quite the opposite of her husband’s fiery precedent, and quickly she was dubbed “Silent Hattie” for not saying much on the Senate floor, although there were plenty of other (male) Senators who didn’t say much either. Arkansans did not seem to care that the new Senator Caraway was quiet nor a woman, they just wanted help as the Great Depression worsened. Letters began pouring into Caraway’s Senate office, begging for assistance. As Hattie read the requests of her constituents, she realized that any person (even a woman!) with a bit of intelligence and hard work could make a significant difference by just caring about average people. As long as she was awake at her Senate desk and paying attention, even while many of her fellow Senators slept, wasn’t she as useful as those who made impassioned, fiery speeches?
She won the regular Senate election in 1932, securing the seat in her own right. She had received support from Huey Long, Senator from Louisiana, which drew criticism from her opponents, implying that people were voting for “the Kingfisher” and not her. Those who defended her victory cited the fact that Senator Caraway had honestly worked on behalf of her fellow Arkansans, and earned the respect of many by that avenue. It should be noted that having Long’s support certainly boosted her campaign, but Hattie made it clear that she had no intention of being a push-over when it came to his agenda. In fact, this later created a bit of a rift amongst the regional politicians who expected more “cooperation” in return for favors extended.
Senator Hattie Caraway also became the first woman to preside over the Senate floor, as well as being the first woman to chair a Senate committee. She chaired the Senate Committee on Enrolled Bills from 1933 to 1944. She was also a well-qualified member of the Agricultural Committee as a person who had grown up on a farm and managed one herself. She had also personally witnessed the devastation of flooding that had affected her neighbors in Arkansas (and Tennessee). She was a major proponent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, supporting work opportunities for her fellow Arkansans, as well as infrastructure development.
Senator Caraway was challenged by Congressman John McClellan in the 1938 Senate race. She soundly defeated him with nearly 90% of the vote. In that same year, she made one of her rare speeches to the Senate on 25 May 1938, which highlights her approach as one of service to the average working citizen. Caraway 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.” During this term she became the first woman to be the senior Senator from any state. Although she accomplished many firsts, and worked for the good of the people as a whole, her record was not without flaws. She voted in line with other Southern Senators against anti-poll tax and anti-lynching bills. She was also in favor of Prohibition. More positively, however, in 1943, she was the first woman in the Senate to co-sponsor the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.
In 1944, at age 66, Hattie was challenged by J. William Fulbright, and she lost the Senate seat in that election. Some say this was due to her lack of campaigning and advancing age—that maybe she was ready to do something less demanding. But after her final term expired, Mrs. Caraway entered into civil service as a member of the United States Employees’ Compensation Commission from 1945 to 1946. Then she served on the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board from 1946 to 1950, an appointment she received from President Roosevelt.
On 18 January 1950, Hattie Caraway suffered a stroke. She was taken to George Washington University Hospital to recover. Reports say she was “gravely ill” and paralyzed on her left side. After she was deemed stabilized, she was sent to Walter Reed Hospital, and later to an extended care home in Falls Church, Virginia. Hattie never recovered from this stroke and passed away on 21 December 1950 after a gradual decline.
She was remembered for her aplomb and dedication, not only to her husband, sons, friends, and family, but also to her constituents whom she always worked for with intent, diligence, and dedication. Hattie was laid to rest next to Thad in Jonesboro.
Weekly Discoveries 🔎
Learn how to organize your personal papers, photos, scrapbooks, and other items to digitize and store them for future generations with this upcoming free virtual personal archiving presentation.
A small collection of Louisiana Military Discharge Records, encompassing the years of 1890 - 1951, is now available for free on FamilySearch.
Adding Legal Research to Your Genealogy Practice
When we think about researching genealogy, we most often think of documents created by a government entity (whether federal, state or local) to trace our ancestors back in time. What we may not consider is how to utilize laws to guide our research. No matter the point in time your ancestors lived, their lives were governed by the laws of the day, which were subject to be written and rewritten throughout their lives, and which expanded and limited their ability to participate in a number of events, such as the ownership of land, the right to vote or to become a citizen.
There are generally three levels of government which might be involved in the creation of laws, the local (a municipality or county), state and federal government - the laws created by each governed the citizens who lived and worked within each jurisdiction. In the colonial period, laws were directed by the government which controlled the colony. For instance, the “thirteen original colonies” were directed by the English king and parliament, while the areas we now know as Florida and Louisiana were governed by the Spanish and French crowns, respectively. So, what type of laws were created by each level of government and how can understanding those laws help in genealogy?
The local government is ultimately regulated by the laws of the state in which it is located, but primarily establishes laws around public health and safety, zoning and other day to day matters in a community. Learning about these laws is likely to be most accessible through the ancestors who either decided to bend or break them or had to interact in some way by obtaining permits or gaining council permissions, etc., and which might also lead you to a trail of newspaper articles and court records. In your research, you may also find instances of obscure laws bordering on the absurd and the hilarious!
Created by state legislative bodies, state laws play a large role in genealogy because they dictate those elements which are essential to research and include but are not limited to, county formation, vital records registration, setting the age of majority in which a person had the full rights and responsibilities of adulthood (and which directly correlates to when a person could marry, own land, pay taxes or represent themselves in court), enumerating the population in a state census or tax roll, and initiating laws regarding matters of property and estate (including dower and inheritance rights). These laws are some of the most important to our understanding of what records are available to us within a state and played vital roles in the lives of our ancestors. Researching state laws can begin with the state legislature’s website, law library or archives.
Federal laws govern every citizen regardless of geographic location within the country. Beginning with the 1774 Continental Congress, the nation’s legislative branch has kept records of its proceedings and is largely accessible online. Some of the major areas in which federal laws intersect with genealogy include the federal census, military draft laws, military service during times of war, ownership of public land, immigration and naturalization, and 1930s New Deal-era programs such as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration. Changing federal laws greatly impacted the lives of our ancestors and have also created records sets which are available to us to research; as an example, you can read more about how changing immigration laws evolved the information found on passenger lists in our previous Issue 38. A great place to begin your federal legal research is through the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
You don’t have to be a legal scholar to gain and utilize knowledge of the law in your genealogy research. Learning about the laws which were contemporary to your ancestors’ lives can help you have a better understanding of the parameters by which they were able to live their lives. Along the way, this will not only provide you with excellent contextual details, but can also help you to prove and disprove a hypothesis and direct your research plan.
Read more about identifying when vital records were mandated by government entities in our archived article, The Problem with Birth Records.
“Caraway Dies; Had Operation Fortnight Ago” Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee), 7 November 1931, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 9 March 2022), citing print edition, p. 1, col. 7-8.
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Nancy Hendricks, Zocalo Public Square (https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org : accessed 3 May 2022), “The Precarious Career Of Hattie Caraway, America’s First Woman Senator.”
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“Mrs. Caraway Continues Improvement at Hospital” The Courier News (Blytheville, Arkansas), 6 February 1950, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 4 May 2022), citing print edition, p. 1, col. 5.
“Mrs. Caraway is Dead at 72” The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 22 December 1950, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 9 March 2022), citing print edition, p. 15, col. 1.
“Mrs. Caraway Remains In Serious Condition” The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 20 January 1950, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 4 May 2022), citing print edition, p. 14, col. 4.
“New Mrs. Caraway Ready for Real Senate Career After Campaign Victory” The Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio), 4 September 1932, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 4 May 2022), citing print edition, p. 6, col. 4-5.
““Those Windows Need Washing,” Says Mrs. Caraway, First Woman Senator” Herald and Review (Decatur, Illinois), 8 December 1931, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 4 May 2022), citing print edition, p. 1, col. 6-7.
United States Capitol Historical Society (https://uschs.org : accessed 18 April 2022), “Widow’s Succession: How Women First Gained a Foothold in Congress.”
United States House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives (https://history.house.gov : accessed 18 April 2022), “Caraway, Thaddeus Horatius.”
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 9 August 2022), digital image from original glass negatives, “[Congress],” 1910-1920, Digital ID: hec 13588 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.13588.
National Archives (http://archives.gov : accessed 9 August 2022), “The Center for Legislative Archives.”
Library of Congress (http://memory.loc.gov : accessed 9 August 2022), “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875.”
Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, LawHelp.org (http://lawhelp.org : accessed 9 August 2022), “The Differences between Federal, State, and Local Laws.”
National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC (http://catalog.archives.gov : accessed 4 February 2021), “Act of May 20, 1862 (Homestead Act), Public Law 37-64 (12 STAT 392),” Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-2013, Record Group 11: General Records of the United States Government, 1778-2006, NAI no. 299815.