By Joe David Rice
In early 1932, Arkansas’ voters did something no other state had ever done: elected a woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. A week after Sen. Thaddeus Caraway of Jonesboro died in office on November 6, 1931, Gov. Harvey Parnell appointed Hattie Caraway, his widow, to temporarily fill the vacancy. In the January 12 special election to complete the last year of her late husband’s term, Hattie Caraway, a Democrat, easily defeated a pair of Independent opponents.
Most political observers in the state – and especially a small group of accomplished and ambitious men in the Democratic Party – expected Sen. Hattie Caraway to quietly step aside when the 1932 general election rolled around. But Caraway surprised the pundits and a strong slate of announced candidates for the seat when she entered the race hours before the filing deadline for the Democratic primary. “The time has passed,” she said, “when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job.”
Caraway had secured almost no financial backing nor had she formed an organization to conduct a last-minute statewide campaign. As longtime Arkansas politician and retired U.S. Senator David Pryor noted in his foreword to the book Hattie and Huey, “The state’s political powers did not know whether to laugh or to pity her.” But their outlook changed when populist Sen. Huey P. Long, the Kingfish of Louisiana, offered to help with her race. Stationed at adjacent desks in the Senate, Hattie and Huey had become good friends – and that’s likely one reason the celebrated Louisiana senator signed on to support her candidacy. Another might have been pure vindictiveness. Long and Arkansas’ senior senator, the powerful Joe T. Robinson, were anything but allies, and by contributing to a Caraway victory, the Kingfish could stymie Robinson’s plans for the post.
Regardless of his motives, Huey P. Long made the difference in what’s surely one of the most exciting political contests in the state’s history. Although members of his advance teams were poor proofreaders – placing an extra R in Caraway in a campaign letter and misspelling Stuttgart (Struttgart) and Harrisburg (Harrisonburg) in the list of scheduled appearances – they turned on the sound trucks and turned out the crowds as Huey and Hattie barnstormed across Arkansas in his big blue Cadillac. This unlikely duo covered thousands of miles and spoke to some 200,000 people over a wild eight-day sprint involving 39 stops. The limousine driver claimed they went through six sets of tires and several windshields as they sped across rough, often unpaved roads dashing from one political rally to the next. A flamboyant and spellbinding orator, Long pulled out all the stops, distributing 4,000 pounds of brochures and pamphlets, lambasting the rich, quoting from the Bible (or at least his version of the Scriptures) and imploring the enthusiastic crowds to vote for Hattie.
On August 9, 1932, with an exhausted Huey P. Long on the train home to Louisiana, more than 250,000 Arkansans went to the polls. Once the final votes were counted, Hattie Caraway won her second election decisively, carrying 60 of the state’s 75 counties. After earning the right to be her party’s nominee on the November ballot, she defeated Republican John W. White by a vote of 187,994 to 21,558 – or by a 90 to 10 percent margin – and even outpolled the hugely popular Franklin Roosevelt, who garnered 86 percent of Arkansas’ presidential vote that year. After her first full six-year term in office, she beat up-and-coming Democratic Congressman John L. McClellan in the 1938 primary (his blatantly chauvinistic slogan: “We need another man in the Senate”) and again cruised to an easy victory in the general election. But Hattie Caraway’s 13-year run in the Senate ended with the 1944 election when Congressman J. William Fulbright, former University of Arkansas President, defeated her in the Democratic primary and then won the seat in November.
During World War II, Caraway’s work in the Senate yielded a number of defense projects in the state – including Fort Chaffee, Camp Robinson, Japanese internment camps at Rohwer and Jerome and several air bases. She also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, the G.I. Bill of Rights, expansion of the state’s higher education system and legislation aiding Arkansas’ agricultural interests. Although a New Deal Democrat, Sen. Caraway joined her Southern colleagues in opposition to civil rights legislation.
It was not until early 1949, 6,235 days after Caraway took office, that Margaret Chase Smith of Maine became the second woman elected to the Senate. Hattie Caraway died in 1950, spending her post-Senate years in Washington, D.C., in civil service jobs. In recognition of her barrier-breaking achievement, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in Senator Caraway’s honor in 2000.
READ MORE: Arkansas Backstories: Patti Upton and Aromatique
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays will be collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, the first of which is now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.
By Joe David Rice