Not a lot of Tennesseans have heard of Hattie Caraway, but perhaps they should have. A native of Tennessee, she was the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
Caraway was born in the Weakley County community of Bakerville and grew up in nearby Hustburg. As a child she worked on the family farm and helped out in her father's general store -- two occupations that were typical of kids her generation. Unlike most girls her age, she got an extensive education, and attended the Dickson Normal College, from where she graduated in 1896. While at that school she met Thaddeus Caraway, and after graduating the two married and moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Senator Caraway standing in front of a painting of her late husband Thaddeus.
PHOTO: Life magazine
Thaddeus Caraway became an attorney and was elected to be one of Arkansas' two U.S. Senators in 1920, then re-elected in 1926. But in November 1931 he died unexpectedly. At that point the governor of Arkansas nominated Hattie Caraway to finish out her husband's term, a nomination that was confimed by a hastily called election a month later. At the time, practically all of the political powers in Arkansas did not expect Caraway to run when her seat came open for election the next year.
Caraway's decision to run in the fall of 1932, therefore, came as a shock to many people in Arkansas. No one gave her campaign much of a chance until July of that year, when Louisiana Senator Huey Long came into Arkansas and campaigned heavily for her. Why the immensely powerful Huey Long did this is a matter of speculation (some believe that it was his way of "getting back" at a rival politician who was running against Caraway). But in any case, Hattie and Huey crisscrossed the state, holding a dozen rallies per day that August. "Interest was so great that many rural people lined the roads to get a glimpse of Huey and Hattie and were rewarded with music from the sound trucks and literature from the vans as they passed on their way," a book called Hattie and Huey (by David Malone) explains. When it was over Caraway won the election against her heavily-favored rivals.
Caraway was reelected in 1938 but lost in 1944, thus serving a total of 14 years in the Senate. As a Senator she was not very vocal -- earning the nickname "Silent Hattie" -- and was a very loyal ally of President Franklin Roosevelt.