REX NELSON: Notable Arkansas women

Posted: August 22, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Ask Americans to name a famous woman who hails from Arkansas, and they likely will list Hillary Rodham Clinton. That's despite the fact that Clinton isn't an Arkansas native. She was raised in the Chicago suburbs but did, of course, spend a significant part of her life in Arkansas as an attorney at Little Rock's Rose Law Firm along with a dozen years as the state's first lady.

Soon after Bill Clinton was elected president on Nov. 3, 1992, I was contacted by a New York publisher. He wanted a biography of the nation's incoming first lady, and he wanted it quickly. I turned the publisher down, noting how busy I was. I was the political editor of this newspaper, tasked with supervising a three-person Washington bureau in the first year of the Clinton administration while also overseeing a three-person state Capitol bureau as Jim Guy Tucker took over as governor. In addition to making assignments and editing those six writers' copy, I was writing my own stories and columns. And, by the way, my wife and I were expecting our first child in the winter of 1993.

The publisher was persistent, and my wife decided that money from the advance check would come in handy with a baby on the way. So it was that I cranked out 100,000 words on Hillary Clinton between the end of January and the July 1 deadline while working on the book late at night and on weekends. Thanks to a masterful editing job and fine introduction by this newspaper's Philip Martin, The Hillary Factor was released in late 1993. It was the first of what would become many full-length biographies of Hillary Clinton.

I've always thought that more should be written on the other women who made their mark on Arkansas. Now, thanks to the Southern Women Series from the University of Georgia Press, there's a new collection of stories about Arkansas women from the frontier days through the 20th century.

Arkansas Women: Their Lives and Times was edited by Cherisse Jones-Branch, a history professor at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, and Gary Edwards, an associate history professor at ASU. I had the pleasure of serving on the Arkansas Humanities Council with Jones-Branch, a serious scholar who's now working on a book about rural black women's activism in Arkansas. Edwards, meanwhile, was a Fulbright Fellow at the Free University of Berlin and is writing a book on antebellum Tennessee.

Fifteen contributors wrote pieces that cover the lives of women you've probably heard of (like U.S. Sen. Hattie Caraway and civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates) and women you've likely never heard of (like folklorist Mary Celestia Parler and African American extension worker Mary L. Ray).

"Like other Southern states, Arkansas was invested in the institution of slavery, yet it was only in its second generation by the time the state seceded from the Union in 1861," Jones-Branch and Edwards write in their introduction to the book. "The bulk of political power, however, resided in the Arkansas Delta where most enslaved African Americans in the state labored. This temporal lag impacted race relations in such a way that led to its becoming an enigma among Southern states. Indeed, after the Civil War, as the state Legislature actively suppressed Ku Klux Klan activities, approximately 200,000 Southern black people flocked to Arkansas to access economic and political opportunities."

Arkansas was truly a haven for a short time for Southern blacks. That's a story that few Americans know. Most people also would be surprised to learn that Arkansas was the first state whose voters elected and later re-elected a woman to the U.S. Senate.

"In December 1935, national newspapers noted that the voting record of Sen. Hattie Caraway was 'one of the most consistently liberal in Congress,'" Sarah Wilkerson Freeman writes in her chapter on Caraway. "Yet Silent Hattie, as the press dubbed her, had not addressed the Senate during the four years since she took office in 1931. This changed in 1936 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought a second term. Caraway vociferously defended New Deal relief programs, insisting that if FDR's administration 'had done nothing else in the three years it has functioned, it would have justified the change of administration, as well as the radical departure from what was the conventional--nay, the old and ultraconservative way of dealing with these problems.'"

Caraway was asked to second Roosevelt's nomination at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. Freeman, who also hails from the ASU history faculty, characterizes Caraway as someone whose "career began with a silent but determined dedication to increasing women's roles in government by inserting herself, to the great surprise of leading male Arkansas Democrats, into the political equation. It ended at the juncture recognized by scholars as a wartime transition toward respecting human rights and women's abilities--critical groundwork for the rise of a rather boisterous second wave of feminism."

Jones-Branch and Edwards say the essays they selected "intentionally reflect diversity by showcasing stories about women from the Arkansas frontier, those who were political, social and health activists, and women who contributed to the state's music, folklore and agriculture. Not all of the women portrayed were native Arkansans. However, their long-term presence in Arkansas has informed the contours of gender history and women's history in the state."

The collection is a valuable addition to existing scholarship on women who made their mark on the history of this state.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 08/22/2018