When asked why she didn’t speak out more during her time in the Senate, Hattie Wyatt Caraway gave a simple response: “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.” Never mistake a woman’s silence for her not having something to say. Known as “Silent Hattie” for her infrequent use of the Senate floor, she chose her words carefully, securing her spot in history—not just as a senator’s widow, but as the first woman elected to the United States Senate.
Hattie Wyatt was born on a farm near Bakersville, Tennessee, on February 1, 1878. She moved to Pennsylvania as a young teenager to attend Ebenezer College, but she returned to Tennessee shortly after to finish her education at the Dickson Normal College. It was there that she met the love of her life and path to her fate, Thaddeus Horatio Caraway.
After the young couple married on February 5, 1902, they moved to Mr. Caraway’s home state of Arkansas, settling into their new life together in Jonesboro. Caraway, who had taught at a rural school after her graduation, now turned her sights toward managing their home life and supporting her husband’s burgeoning political career. As he rose in the ranks of Arkansas Democrats, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912 and served there through 1921, after securing a win in the Senate the year before. All the while, his devoted wife stood strong behind her husband, helping move the family to Maryland and raising their three sons, Robert, Paul, and Forrest Caraway, all of whom became West Point Cadets.
But the woman who would become known as “Silent Hattie” wasn’t silent at all. Known for speaking out on women’s political rights, Caraway was an effective campaigner for her husband, and he was said to have greatly respected her opinions. They say behind every powerful man is a strong woman, and that was a strong truth for the Caraways. But on November 6, 1931, Mr. Caraway died unexpectedly, leaving his wife a widow, single mother, and rightful heir to his Senate seat.
Arkansas Governor Harvey Parnell appointed Caraway to her husband’s seat for the remaining fourteen months of his term. But this didn’t come without controversy, as several Arkansas politicians wanted the highly coveted seat, and the Washington Post denounced the governor’s decision. So on December 8, 1931, Caraway claimed her husband’s seat, with a special election looming in the not-so-distant future. But with the governor’s endorsement and Arkansas’s one-party system, there wasn’t much standing in her way. With ninety-two percent of the vote, Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate on January 12, 1932.
The battle to keep her seat, however, had just begun. Many in the Arkansas political field assumed (incorrectly) that Caraway was just finishing her husband’s term as she felt he would have wanted and that this poor widow would step down when the term was finished. To the shock and chagrin of many, Caraway announced her candidacy right on the deadline for the Democratic primary coming in August. She spoke the beliefs of many women who had stood idly by for too long when she told the press, “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job.”
The same women she had spoken to while campaigning for her husband rallied around her, forming the Arkansas Women’s Democratic Club. Her chances still seemed slim, but Caraway had a wild card up her sleeve—her husband’s frequent ally and ambitious Louisiana senator, Huey P. Long. Long-time rival of Arkansas Senator and minority leader Joseph T. Robinson, Long organized a campaign for Caraway that led the pair all over the state, appealing to voters’ sympathies and portraying her as a poor widow, “brave little woman,” and above all a champion for the people of rural Arkansas against big, bad Wall Street. The campaign was a success, landing her in the Senate for another term.
Caraway went on to serve thirteen years in the Senate, before losing her seat to J. William Fulbright in 1944. During her tenure she was known as a champion for the rural South and a strong supporter for President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. And she was a champion for women, a groundbreaker in a political establishment still noted as a “Good Ole Boys” club. Aside from her role as first elected female senator, she held a number of firsts for women, including the first woman to preside over the Senate, first woman to chair a Senate committee, and first woman to preside over a Senate hearing. But while she was considered forward-thinking in regards to a woman’s role in politics, her political ideology did not extend to all, and, more often than not, she voted as the Southern Democrat she was—voting against anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation.
After her departure from the Senate, she remained a vital part of the Washington political scene. Due much to the support she gave him, President Roosevelt appointed Caraway the following year as a member of the Federal Employees’ Compensation Commission, and she served on the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board the following year until her death in 1950.
After her death, Caraway was moved from her Virginia home back to the state she served both as a congressional wife and a U.S. Senator. The first woman to break the long-formed mold of Arkansas politics was buried next to her husband at Oaklawn Cemetery in Jonesboro. But her legacy lives on in the stories of other Southern women who later stepped over the threshold of the U.S. Senate—the same threshold crossed by “Silent Hattie,” a not-so-silent woman who spoke volumes of the world of Southern politics.