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Southern Women Set the Stage

August 20, 1937

Hattie Caraway with Dixie B. Graves outside, 1937

In speaking about the women of the Senate, the remarkable career of Margaret Chase Smith is often highlighted. During her 33 years of congressional service, Smith paved the way for an ever-increasing role for women. It should be noted, however, that this Yankee Republican from Maine was not the first woman to serve in the Senate. In fact, before Smith arrived in 1949, six women had already served—and the first four came from southern states.

Rebecca Felton of Georgia led the way. Appointed in 1922 for mostly symbolic reasons, Felton broke a barrier that had kept women out of the Senate since 1789. A decade later, Hattie Caraway of Arkansas took office. First appointed, then elected and reelected, she served nearly 14 years and was the first woman to chair a committee. Rose Long, widow of controversial Louisiana senator Huey Long, joined the list in 1935. She won a special election and served for a year before retiring to private life.

And then came Dixie Graves. “Miss Dixie,” as she was called, was well known in her home state of Alabama. Long active in women’s organizations and state politics, Graves was a strong proponent for women’s rights and a founding member of the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association. She was also married to Alabama Governor Bibb Graves.

In 1937 Governor Graves had a problem. When Hugo Black left the Senate that year to accept a seat on the Supreme Court, it was the governor’s duty to fill the vacancy, but Alabama’s Democratic Party was split between those who favored the New Deal and those who didn’t. The governor was a loyal New Deal man and he—along with President Franklin Roosevelt—favored Congressman Lister Hill. Since Hill needed time to mount a campaign, appointing a placeholder to the vacant seat seemed the best solution. President Roosevelt recommended Dixie Graves, since the politically astute wife of the governor could be counted on to cast pro–New Deal votes. On August 20, 1937, Governor Graves appointed his wife as U.S. senator.

Needless to say, this appointment caused a bit of a stir. Some charged the governor with nepotism and power-grabbing, or accused him of lining his family pockets with public money. Not surprisingly, many complaints smacked of sexism. “Isn’t it pitiful that Alabama has not an available man for the job,” asked one critic. Another complained that although Mrs. Graves had charm, the Senate required the “statesmanship of a hard-headed fighting man.” All we can be sure about, a reporter gibed, is that Mrs. Graves “can’t be a very good cook. Otherwise her husband…would never have appointed her to the Senate.”

Dixie Graves’s term in the Senate was short—just 144 days—but it was by no means uneventful. She quickly gained press attention as she enthusiastically embraced her Senate duties. Within weeks, she delivered her maiden address, participated in a filibuster, and even presided over the Senate—a true rarity for women of the time. Before long, there was talk of election to a full term, but Graves chose not to run. She left the Senate in January of 1938, making way for the newly elected Lister Hill.

Each of these women brought to the Senate attitudes typical among southern members of the time—including their support for racial segregation in their home states—but they also forged new paths, leading to a fuller participation of women in politics. These four daughters of the South created opportunities, altered public attitudes, and helped to redefine the role of women in the Senate.