Few women make it to Senate

Since 1923, only 31 women have been sworn in to that high office

Posted: Sunday, August 05, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 70 years after she astonished her many male rivals by barnstorming Arkansas and winning a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate, Hattie Caraway is finally getting some respect.

Her portrait was hung in a Senate corridor six years ago, honoring her as the first woman elected to the chamber. This year the U.S. Postal Service featured her on a stamp.

Caraway's increased visibility occurs at a time when women hold 13 of the Senate's 100 seats, more than at any other time. Three states -- Maine, California and Washington -- each have two female senators.

The numbers, and the odds they will increase in future elections, recall the prediction made by the one woman to serve as a senator before Caraway.

Rebecca Felton was 87 in 1922 when the governor of Georgia appointed her to the seat of a senator who had died in office. Although Felton was well known in the state, many said the governor had a hidden motive.

''He did not appoint a woman because he has respect for women in politics, but actually to smooth his own path to the Senate,'' one newspaper said.

The plan failed; Walter George, a state judge, won the election.

But Felton made the most of her situation. Backed by women from around the country, she insisted on being sworn in and seated in the Senate, if just for a day.

She got her wish, taking the oath of office on Nov. 23, 1922. In a brief speech from her Senate desk, the outspoken newpaperwoman quickly got to the point.

''Let me say, Mr. President, that when the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but very few in the next few years, I pledge you that you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness.''

Nine years later, the governor of Arkansas appointed Caraway to the Senate seat left vacant by the sudden death of her husband. She easily won a special election for the year remaining in the term, in part because few men were interested in so short a term.

At first, the new Sen. Caraway felt isolated. She noted she had been allotted the same desk assigned to Felton when she served as senator-for-a-day.

''I guess they wanted as few of them contaminated as possible,'' she wrote in her diary. Listening at her desk, she rarely spoke and was soon dubbed ''Silent Hattie.''

She broke her silence in the summer of 1932. She would run for a full six-year term. ''I am going to fight for my place in the sun,'' she said.

Caraway had five male opponents. She was given no chance to win.

But she soon gained an unexpected ally, one who was as colorful and outspoken as she was reserved.

Chatting quietly from their adjoining desks at the rear of the Senate chamber, Caraway and Sen. Huey Long, D-La., forged a bond. A powerful state politician known as the ''Kingfish,'' he yearned for a broader stage.

Long mustered a caravan of seven vehicles, two of them powerful sound trucks, and he and Caraway roared into Arkansas for one whirlwind week in August. By one estimate they spoke to more than 200,000 people in 39 appearances throughout the state.

''I'm here to get a group of potbellied politicians off a brave little woman's neck,'' Long told every audience.

''We brought a three-ring circus to Arkansas and it was well worth the price of admission,'' a satisfied Caraway said after claiming victory.

Six years later, she won a second term against an opponent who ran under the slogan, ''Arkansas needs another man in the Senate.'' Her career ended in 1944 when she lost the Democratic primary.

For years afterward, most women entering the Senate did so on the ''widow's mandate,'' appointed to succeed deceased husbands. But increasingly they are elected in their own right.

Four women joined the Senate after last fall's election, including former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York's first female senator.

The list is still a short one; since 1923 only 31 women, including Felton and Caraway, have been senators.

But with every increase in numbers, the novelty of their presence lessens.

When some started calling 1992 ''the Year of the Woman'' after four new female senators entered the chamber, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., memorably objected. It's not a fad or a fancy but a fact, she said.

''Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus,'' Mikulski said.

Lawrence L. Knutson has covered the White House, Congress and Washington's history for more than 30 years.

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