Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Accidental First Female Senator

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hattie Caraway wasn’t supposed to become a U.S. Senator. But when she did, she became the first woman to be elected to that office ever. How did a woman without an interest in serving in public office end up making history, anyway? 

Call it a combination of bad luck and sheer doggedness. Caraway was a schoolteacher when she married Thaddeus Caraway, an Arkansas Democrat who worked his way from prosecutor to Congressman to Senator. But in 1931, at the age of 60, he developed a blood clot and dropped dead.

This was not just a tragic bereavement for Hattie, but a death that triggered something so common it became known as “the widow’s succession.” In 1922, John Nolan had won a sixth congressional term, but died soon afterwards. In January 1923, his widow, Mae Ella Nolan, had won a special election to fill the vacated congressional seat as well as serve the full term he had been elected to before his death. This set a precedent within the House of Representatives that allowed women, many of whom already closely advised their husbands and came from powerful political families, to help provide a smooth transition without causing the need for party leaders to scramble for a replacement.

There had already been a woman Senator, too—the outspoken suffragette Rebecca Latimer, who, at 87, was sworn in as Senator and served a symbolic 24-hour term after being appointed as an interim senator by a governor who wanted to appease women voters for having voted against women’s suffrage. But Latimer didn’t really serve.

On the first day Caraway walked into the Senate, she supposedly declared that “the windows need washing!” But Caraway took her temporary position as Senator for the state of Arkansas seriously—so seriously that she decided not to step aside once a special election could be held. Instead, on January 12, 1932, she ran for, and won, her husband’s old seat on her own merits, making her the first woman elected to the Senate. And she decided to run for the seat again in that year’s November election. 

“I am going to fight for my place in the sun,” she told reporters and her surprised colleagues. And fight she did. Caraway had an ace in her pocket: Louisiana senator Huey Long, whom her husband had long supported.  With a little over a week to go before the Democratic primary, Long and Caraway went on a week-long tour of Arkansas, making such an impression that she won handily, carrying almost 45 percent of the vote despite being expected to win just 2000 votes. In 1930s Arkansas, winning the Democratic primary was virtually the same thing as winning the election, which she did by a 9-1 margin.

Now that she was in the Senate on her own merits, Caraway got down to business. She was primarily a Roosevelt Democrat, supporting most New Deal policies. Though women had only recently won the vote, her political sympathies didn’t extend to politically oppressed people of color. In 1938, she voted against an anti-lynching law and even called it “a gratuitous insult to the South.” (While she was opposed to lynchings, she was concerned this bill was designed to “destroy the South not only as a political entity but as a business threat.”)

Caraway won the Democratic primary by a slim margin in 1938, but failed to regain her nomination in 1944. Still, she earned a reputation as a hardworking, mainly quiet presence in the Senate. “Silent Hattie” became a legend for what she didn’t say—she spoke on the floor of the Senate just 15 times during her career—as much as for her quick wit and withering quips. (Her most famous quote: “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.”) 

But though she traded on her femininity when it was to her advantage—like when Huey Long painted her as a meek woman being trampled upon by politicians—she also had a pragmatic view of a woman’s role in Congress. “Women are essentially practical because they’ve always had to be,” she said. “And women are much more realistic than men, particularly when it comes to public questions.” Translation: Caraway would probably have managed to show up for work after a major snowstorm, too.

Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]


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