Here’s more historic female firsts, and the struggles they encountered, in recognition of March being Women’s History Month.
First in the Senate
Hattie Caraway of Jonesboro was not only the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, she was the first to be re-elected.
She was appointed to the Senate after the death of her husband, U.S. Sen. Thad Caraway in 1931. Widows had been appointed to the Senate before, but it was understood this was just until the right man was picked for the office by whatever political machine was running the show. Caraway decided she would run, bucking the system. She was elected in 1932 with no backing from her Democratic Party at home. But, U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long of Louisiana campaigned for her. As Nancy Hendricks, a Caraway biographer points out, Caraway won with more total votes than all six men who ran against her combined.
“Some political observers said she would not have won without Huey’s help, but she notably defeated her opponents in counties where she and Long did not campaign,” Hendricks writes in a Smithsonian Magazine article. News didn’t travel then like it does now, so that probably was a big deal. We’ll never know if Long would have continued to help her as he was assassinated in 1935.
Caraway faced challenges with the senior Senator from Arkansas at the time, Joe Robinson. In a 1932 entry in her diary, Caraway wrote: “I very foolishly tried to talk to Joe today. Never again. He was cooler than a fresh cucumber and sourer than a pickled one.”
But Caraway hung in there, even when she was attacked by opponents for not being ‘home where she belonged to take care of her children.’ Her three sons were grown, by the way. Her oldest, Paul, and second oldest, Forrest, had already graduated from West Point. They would both become U.S. Army generals. Her youngest son, Robert, born in 1915, was attending West Point in 1934 when he died in a horse-riding accident. They all supported their mother’s political career.
Caraway won re-election in 1938 even though her opponents attacked her mostly because of her gender. U.S. Rep. John McClellan ran against her for the Democratic nomination with the slogan “We Need Another Man in the Senate.” She won the nomination that year with 51 percent of the vote but walloped her Republican opponent, C.D. Atkinson, with about 90 percent of the vote.
Caraway voted against anti-poll tax and anti-lynching legislation to make it a federal crime. She also was against the repeal of prohibition. She was a co-sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1943 and a sponsor of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill). She was instrumental in securing Camp Robinson and Fort Chaffee according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Caraway left office in 1945, having been unseated by William Fulbright in the Democratic primary. She passed away in 1950 at age 72.
First Lady firsts
When Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton became president in 1993, Hillary Clinton established many firsts among First Ladies. She was the first to hold a postgraduate degree, the first to have a professional career right up until entering the White House, and the first to have an office in the West Wing. She also was the first First Lady to run for office and was elected U.S. Senator from New York, that state’s first woman Senator.
After the Clinton presidency Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be nominated by one of our major political parties to run for president in 2016. She also is the first woman to win the popular vote for president.
Clinton wrote in her 2003 memoir “Living History” that she’s lived a life that her grandparents and parents could have never dreamed of. ”But they bestowed on me the promise of America, which made my life and my choices possible,” she wrote.
Born in 1947, Clinton also wrote that she sent a letter to NASA when she was 13 years old to find out what the qualifications were for her to become an astronaut. She said NASA wrote back telling her there wouldn’t be any women astronauts.
She became a lawyer. Clinton’s public life has included 11 years as Arkansas’ First Lady, eight years as First Lady of the United States, eight years as a U.S. Senator, four years as U.S. Secretary of State and two bids for the presidency including the Democratic nomination. She was quoted as saying in a Time interview in 2017 that she hoped her presidential campaign would help pave the way for other women. “Even though we didn’t win,” she said. “We made the sight of a woman nominee more familiar, and we brought the possibility of a woman president closer.”
Right now there are more women serving in Congress than at any other time in our history. A record 128 women are serving in the House, and 25 of our 100 U.S. Senators are women. There also are more women governors than at any other time – 12 of them – including Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders, our state’s first woman governor.
Historic firsts for women help blaze trails for women in all areas – not just within our government – because they are so public and each one inspires more of the same.
Steve Gillespie is editor of The Daily Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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