The U.S. Senate welcomed its first female senator in 1922, and saw its first elected woman senator in 1932. To date, 56 women have served as senators, setting precedents, breaking new ground, and paving the way for future female senators. Here are a few of the ground-breakers.
Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia, the first woman to serve in the United States Senate, was appointed on October 3, 1922, to fill a vacancy. She took the oath of office on November 21, 1922, and then served just 24 hours as a duly-sworn member of the Senate. The 87-year-old Felton's brief term in the Senate capped a long career in Georgia politics and journalism. In her only Senate speech, delivered to a large audience in the Senate Chamber on November 22, Felton made this prediction: "When the women of the country come in and sit with you,... you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness."
(Photo: Senate Historical Office)
Hattie Caraway (D-AR) was appointed to the Senate in 1931 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of her husband, Senator Thaddeus Caraway. The second woman to serve in the Senate, Caraway became the first woman elected to the Senate in January of 1932. Although she easily won that special election to fill out the remainder of her husband's term, most considered her a longshot for the general election of 1932. To bolster her campaign, a determined "Silent Hattie" enlisted the help of controversial Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana. Long joined his Senate colleague on a highly publicized "Hattie and Huey" tour that took them to dozens of cities and towns across Arkansas. In rousing speeches, Long portrayed the Arkansas senator as a champion of the working people and an opponent of big business. Much to the surprise of many, Hattie Caraway won the 1932 election by a landslide. Reelected in 1938, she served in the Senate until 1945. In 1943, she became the first woman to preside over the Senate. In 1996, the U.S. Senate added her portrait to its collection. (Photo: Library of Congress)
Margaret Chase Smith, Republican Senator from Maine, served four full terms in the Senate beginning in 1949, following five terms in the House of Representatives— the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. In a time when it was still unusual for women to serve in the U.S. Congress, Smith chose not to limit herself to "women's issues," instead making her mark in foreign policy and military affairs. She established a reputation as a tough legislator on the Senate Armed Services Committee, championed the role of women in the military, and became the first woman to run for president on a majority party ticket in 1964. On June 1, 1950, Margaret Chase Smith rose to her feet in the Senate Chamber and delivered a "Declaration of Conscience" against McCarthyism, defending every American's "right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought." (Photo: Senate Historical Office)
Nancy Kassebaum became a senator in 1978, the 14th woman to serve in the Senate. The daughter of Alfred Landon, the Republican presidential candidate in 1936, Kassebaum swept both the 1978 Republican primary and the general election, despite having little political experience, and brought to the Senate a history of political activism and tireless energy. During her nearly two decades in the Senate, Kassebaum became the first woman to chair a current standing committee in the Senate, the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, chaired the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, and championed the causes of arms control and budget deficit reduction. Easily reelected in 1984 and again in 1990, she retired from the Senate in 1997. (Photo: Senator Kassebaum confers with other members of the Foreign Relations Committee, (L-R) Howard Baker, Jacob Javits, Charles Percy and Paul Laxalt. Senate Historical Office)
Some called 1992 the "Year of the Woman." More women than ever before were elected to political office in November of that year, and five of them came to the U.S. Senate. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) not only joined that class on January 3, 1993, but also became the first African American woman ever to serve as U.S. senator. During her Senate career, Moseley Braun sponsored progressive education bills and campaigned for gun control. Moseley Braun left the Senate in January of 1999 and soon after became the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, a position she held until 2001. Moseley Braun ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. (Photo: Senate Historical Office)