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A Woman Presides over the Senate

October 19, 1943

Image of Hattie W. Caraway with gavel as the Senate's acting president pro tempore.

On October 19, 1943, for the first time, a woman formally took up the gavel as the Senate's presiding officer. In the absence of the vice president and the president pro tempore, the duties of the chair were assigned to Arkansas senator Hattie Caraway.

The first woman elected to the Senate, Caraway had presided once before. In 1932 she briefly filled in for Vice President Charles Curtis, but there was no official recognition of the event. Caraway noticed, of course. “Made history,” she wrote in her diary. “Nothing came up but oh, the autographs I signed.” Other precedents followed—the first woman to chair a committee in 1933, and the first woman to stand in for the floor leader in 1940. By 1943 Caraway had grown accustomed to breaking the Senate's gender barriers.

Hattie Caraway entered the Senate in November 1931, by appointment, following the death of her husband, Senator Thad Caraway. Party leaders assumed the widow had no intention of running for a full term, but they were wrong. On May 9, 1932, Caraway surprised just about everyone and declared her candidacy. “I pitched a coin and heads came [up] three times,” she noted in her diary, adding, “I really want to try out my own theory of a woman running for office.” Her male competitors joked that she would be lucky to attract 1 percent of the vote. What they failed to consider, however, was the tenaciousness of the “little lady from Arkansas” and the persuasive skills of Louisiana senator Huey Long.

The highlight of her 1932 campaign came in August, when the controversial Huey Long joined Caraway for a week-long road trip nicknamed the “Hattie and Huey Tour.” Storming through Arkansas with his big sound trucks, Long bellowed: “We're here to pull a lot of pot-bellied politicians off a little woman's neck.” Giving her own stump speeches alongside the Louisiana Kingfish, Caraway won the election with double the vote of her nearest rival. Reelected in 1938 (without Long’s help), she served in the Senate until 1945.

Despite this success, Caraway remained a bit of a curiosity in the Senate. In 1937 she complained: “Sometimes, I’m really afraid that tourists are going to poke me with their umbrellas.” She rarely spoke on the Senate floor, preferring the smaller setting of the committee room, and the male-dominated press quickly labeled her "Silent Hattie." Yet, by the mid-1930s, Caraway became an effective legislator and delivered speeches at large political rallies.

As her career drew to a close, journalist Drew Pearson commented: “In that turbulent…[Senate] chamber, where a person’s good points or bad quickly shine through the gloss, [Hattie Caraway] held her own.” On her final day in office, the Senate tendered Caraway the high honor of a standing ovation.

That day in October 1943 remains a milestone in Senate history. How did Caraway feel about presiding over the Senate? “Nothing to it,” she told reporters. After all, the Senate is the “best behaved crowd of men you ever saw.”