Eighty years ago today a largely forgotten pioneer became the first woman elected to serve in the United States Senate. When her husband, Senator Thaddeus Caraway (D – AR) died in office, Caraway was appointed by the Governor to fill in until a special election could be called. She ran in the special election and won the seat handily. In May 1932, when Vice President Charles Curtis invited her to preside over the Senate, she not only became the first woman ever to do so, but she also shocked her colleagues by announcing her intention to run for a full term. Successful in her bid, she went on to win again in 1938 after a tough primary challenge. She was defeated for re-election in 1944.
Known as a quiet Senator, she was nevertheless a strong advocate for the poor, workers, and women. She was the first woman to chair a Senate Committee (Enrolled Bills and Library) and in 1943 became the first female legislator to support the Equal Rights Amendment. Early in her career, she commented matter-of-factly about how basic equal rights should be:
after equal suffrage I just added voting to cooking and sewing and other household duties.
After losing her Senate seat, she was appointed by President Roosevelt to the Employees’ Compensation Commission, and in 1946 President Harry Truman gave her a post on the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board, where she served until suffering a stroke in January 1950.