To the surprise of many political observers of the early 20th century, 1931 was not only a year during the Great Depression, but it was the year in which the United States seated it’s first woman Senator. The tumultuous political climate which facilitated the circumstance for the elevation of Hattie Caraway to Senator, not only opened the doors to women in American Politics but also provided the means for populous movements to changed the face of America in the 20th century.
Hattie Caraway, the wife of Thaddeus Caraway, Senator from the state of Arkansas, took the oath of office on December 8, 1931, just one month after her husband’s untimely death. Supporters of the momentous occasion hardly expected that the widow Caraway would do more than hold the senate seat until a suitable successor could be elected the following year. As a junior member of the senate, Mrs. Caraway was assigned a seat toward the back of the Senate Chamber, right next to the controversial Senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long. Although the two Southern Senators had met previously, it wasn’t until they found themselves sharing many similar concerns that they became friends and sometimes political allies.
After the crash of the stock market in October 1929, life in America changed drastically for most Americans. The richest men, banks and trusts got richer while the average person got poorer. Many men, the breadwinners for their families, found themselves without work and without hope of any employment. Wives and mothers went to work, if they could find jobs, to keep the family fed and clothed. Soup kitchens and charity homes tried to serve the masses of people effected by the economic depression.
Complicating matters for another segment of the population, farmers suffered declining demand since the end of World War I (1918) . In addition, Prohibition of Alcohol ceased legitimate production of spirits, which contributed to a grain glut in the market and prices fell. If that wasn’t bad enough, a sustained drought hit the central portion of the country creating a regional Dust Bowl which further devastated farmers. Equipment and land mortgaged for expansion in the 1920s, became the property of banks, as repossessions and foreclosures became common place in the early 1930s.
Social and economic reforms were the topic of the day. Many plans to jump start the economy were devised. President Herbert Hoover believed that supplying the top few percent of the population with tax breaks and incentives that the trickle down economics would soon return the American economy to its pre-crash condition.
History shows that the government programs intended to relieve the suffering of the people only served to line the pockets of the already rich and powerful. Little, if any, money ever reached the impoverished, the misery of the masses became legendary.
In this climate of utter hopelessness, Mrs. Hattie Caraway found herself in a unique position. She found that her appointment to the Senate, although originally a courtesy or gesture of sympathy, also served as a political maneuver for the Democratic Party to stall for time to groom an appropriate successor for Senator Thaddeus Caraway. This situation allowed her great freedom, because she had no political debt, she owed no allegiance and she voted her own conscience.
Senator Caraway quickly distinguished herself by voting her own conscience, often against many in her own Democratic Party as well as against the senior Arkansas Senator, Joseph Robinson. She proved herself a thoughtful and caring representative for the people of Arkansas.
Hattie Caraway kept busy with the business of representing the people of Arkansas to the best of her ability by exposing the conflicts of interest such as that by Harvey Couch, one of President Hoover’s appointees to the Board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, who also was the founder of Arkansas Power and Light. Many utility interests were served by the federal money intended to rejuvenate the American economy. There were no off-limits interests for Senator Caraway. She distinguished herself as a champion of the people and exposed hypocrisy and corruption wherever it was found. By December 1931, she confided to close friends that she believed herself well qualified for the job of Senator.
By May 1932, Senator Hattie Caraway had paid little attention to her election campaign, and to the amazement of friends and opponents alike, Hattie Caraway decided she wanted the senate seat for herself. She announced her intention to run for the office, much to the chagrin of the very same people who arranged her appointment in the first place. But her Senate seating partner, Huey P. Long happily offered to help her campaign, not only to help the Lady Senator but to needle Senator Robinson, with whom Senator Long had a mutual and long standing animosity.
Senate campaigns usually require at least months of preparation, Senator Caraway found that by Late Spring 1932 when she began to attend to her own campaign, she was one woman without the political machinery to run a viable campaign. Her husband’s former associates had already cast their allegiances with other candidates. Her field of opponents numbered six. Six politically savvy and serious contenders vied for Party’s nomination for the coveted Senate seat. While she enjoyed the friendship of Huey Long, she was undecided as to whether to accept his help with her campaign. She wrote in her diary that she required a complete understanding with Senator Long that accepting his support with her campaign in no way would alter or oblige her to vote a particular way in any issue presented. Senator Caraway valued her vote as well as a clear conscience, she refused to “sell her soul” or vote, for the election.
As late as July 15th 1932, Hattie Caraway had no itinerary to reporters who asked about her returned to Arkansas to begin campaigning with the election just weeks away. During her first radio address, Hattie sounded stilted as she recounted her Senate voting record. In the previous week , Hattie had come to an agreement with Senator Long that his support and agreement to campaign on her behalf in no way obliged her vote in any way but there was still no set plan. She did, however, identify with the plight of the common person, having just suffered though the foreclosure of her own home just months after the death of her husband. She could talk to the crowd and they knew that she understood their desperation.
The political machinery of the Louisiana Senator set to work in late July to create an unforgettable whirlwind campaign. Commencing Monday, August 1st through Saturday the 6th, the Hattie Caraway campaign caravan featured the popular speaker Huey Long. The famous Long sound trucks , a novelty in themselves, providing amplification for the speakers as well as music to entertain the crowds. The menagerie crisscrossed Arkansas with no less than six speaking engagements daily. Hattie, originally a timid public speaker found that she had developed a strong speaking style of her own by the end of the week.
Hattie Caraway, like her friend, Huey Long, spoke to the heart of the American public. The people understood that a few very wealthy men, less than 1 % of the population owned and/or controlled 87% of the wealth of the country. These two senators believed that for the betterment of the common person, it was time to Share the Wealth. The Share the Wealth plan sought to redistribute the wealth by limiting the income of the extremely wealthy, providing jobs and equitable wages for all Americans.
By the end of the campaign week, Hattie Caraway was a contender in the Democratic Primary. Hattie had demonstrated to the public that she was competent to represent them. As a wife and mother, she had gained the experience to understand the issues of the day and the people she addressed understood that she had her own political power. She did not sit in the Senate as a mere courtesy. Hattie made friends wherever she spoke. Come the primary election, she won easily. In November 1932, Hattie shocked her opponents as she took 60 out of 75 counties in Arkansas. She had become Senator Caraway from Arkansas in her own right.
The elections in November 1932 brought an end to the succession of Republican presidents. Franklin D Roosevelt assumed the highest office in the land and made sweeping reforms in the first 100 days of his administration. During the tenure of Senator Caraway, Prohibition was repealed, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act created jobs in the then new hydroelectric industry, the Federal Housing Authority stimulated the building industry, the Social Security Act created a cushion for older adults and farmers against the boom-or-bust economic cycles and Labor Unions and popular social movements were able to require employers to pay workers living wages, and benefits such as employer paid health insurance, paid vacation and sick time and other benefits through collective bargaining and supportive representation in government by people like the first woman Senator, Hattie Caraway of Arkansas.
Garraty, John. 1,0001 Things Everyone Should Know About American History. New York: Doubleday. 1989.
Kennedy, David and Thomas Bailey. The American Pageant. Lexington: Heath and Company. 1986.
Malone, David. Hattie and Huey: An Arkansas Tour. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. 1989.