Dixie Bibb Graves, the first woman to serve in Congress from Alabama, came to Washington through an unusual route. When President Franklin Roosevelt surprised the country by nominating Senator Hugo Black to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937, Alabama Governor Bibb Graves provoked a storm of criticism by naming his 55–year–old wife, Dixie Bibb Graves, to fill the Senate seat. "She has as good a heart and head as anybody," the governor told the press.1
Dixie Bibb was born on July 26, 1882, on a plantation near Montgomery, Alabama, to Payton and Isabel Bibb. The family was long associated with Alabama politics. Two of her ancestors had served as the first and second state governors. Dixie was raised with an orphaned cousin, Bibb Graves, and the two married in 1900 after Bibb Graves graduated from Harvard University and was serving as a state legislator. Although Dixie Graves's political power was clearly derivative, she boasted a long career in state and regional women's clubs, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Alabama Federation of Women's Clubs. From 1915 to 1917, while her husband served overseas in the army, she was president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She also campaigned for women's suffrage in Alabama. Bibb Graves was governor twice, 1927–1931 and 1935–1939; Alabama's constitution prohibited consecutive terms in the statehouse.2 Dixie Graves was comfortable enough on the stump to fill in for her husband, beginning with the 1934 campaign. Press accounts described her as a woman who was "at home with deep–sea fishing tackle, a shotgun, a garden spade, or a silver ladle at the banquet table." She also was credited with drafting some of her husband's speeches and influencing key decisions. Her campaign skills impressed enough people that she was mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate for 1938.3
Governor Graves's appointment of his wife in August 1937 provoked great controversy, but it also made political sense. Alabama, like other southern states at the time, was dominated by the Democratic Party, and power within the party was divided among local organizations and machines. Senator Hugo Black's departure for the Supreme Court had presented Governor Graves with an unexpected problem. The state constitution precluded Graves from filling the Senate vacancy himself, and there was an impressive list of viable claimants to the seat, each representing a substantial political constituency or faction in the state. One historian listed a former U.S. Senator, five U.S. Representatives, a state senator, an industrialist, and a lawyer as likely appointment prospects.4 For Graves, described by associates as "a natural–born dealer," to appoint his wife meant that he did not have to choose among political factions within the state; he had left it to the voters to choose.5 In addition, Dixie Graves's income as a Senator would be a welcome addition: the Senate rate was twice the governor's salary.6
Dixie Graves's appointment, however, was opposed by women's groups, newspapers, and many Alabama constituents. "In the Senate of the United States, where matters of such grave importance arise as to try the ability (and the souls) of veterans of many years, there is no place for a woman appointee unless her past experience would justify such action," one woman wrote to a Birmingham newspaper.7The Birmingham Age–Herald judged the governor's decision "repellent to the point of being offensive."8
Dixie Graves was sworn in before the Senate on August 20, 1937, days before the first session of the 75th Congress (1937–1939) ended.9 She was seated in the "Cherokee Strip," the row of Democratic desks that took up the last row on the Republican side of the aisle due to the large Democratic majority. Graves suspected the seating was meant to send a message. "I'm supposed to be seen, perhaps," she said in a radio talk, "but certainly not heard."10 During her five months in office she served on the Committee on Claims, the Committee on Education and Labor, and the Committee on Mines and Mining. In the Senate, she was not able to capitalize on her organizational background—she was regarded by her colleagues for what she was: an interim appointee, without her own political base and without a future. Her political acumen, however, stood her in good stead. When controversy broke out over revelations that her predecessor, Justice Hugo Black, had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, she refrained from commenting on the issue. "That has nothing to do with me or with my office," she said.11 "After a good look, shocked Washingtonians decided that Governor Graves could have made a worse appointment," Time soon reported.12 During her brief Senate service Dixie Graves compiled a near–perfect attendance record and supported New Deal programs.13
For her part Senator Graves gained celebrity for her maiden Senate speech of November 19, 1937, during the southern filibuster against the Wagner–Van Nuys Anti–Lynching Bill. Originally, no one expected Graves to have a chance at participating much in Washington, but President Roosevelt had called a special session of Congress that fall. When she arrived back in the Capitol, she was anticipating supporting the administration in aiding farmers and expanding wage and hours benefits.14 Instead, she found herself facing an angry Senate roiled during this filibuster. "I abhor lynching," she stated repeatedly as she related a brief history of lynching. "Mr. President, I rejoice, too, that in the South the constituted authorities, diligent about their business and strengthened by public opinion, are banishing the crime of lynching." She observed that lynchings had fallen by two–thirds during the previous decade, and she suggested that the crime would disappear in another few years. Graves concluded that there was no compelling reason for federal intervention in a local law–enforcement issue: "surely only a compelling emergency should cause this body to strike down the sovereignty of an indestructible State and utilize the forces of the Federal Government to insure law and order. No such emergency exists. The problem is being solved." The appearance of the bill before the Senate, she judged, was not due to political maneuverings. If neither the facts nor political advantage had brought the bill before the Senate, she blamed the media. "When one case of lynching occurs in the South, the press of these United States blazons that fact forth throughout the length and breadth of the land, and in all of its details it reiterates all of the circumstances, and harps on the same thing so long that the average person in remote sections who himself does not know the truth is very apt to believe that an isolated case is a typical one," she said. Observers in the Senate Gallery said they saw tears in her eyes as Senator Graves appealed to her colleagues to defeat the bill. After her speech, Senators from both parties gathered around to congratulate her.15
Graves's speech evoked strong support in the South. "It was a hit," reported the Washington Herald.16 "SHE SPOKE AS A DAUGHTER OF THE DEEP SOUTH" blared the Montgomery Advertiser.17 The Washington Post pronounced the speech one of the best on the subject, making Graves the session's best "surprise."18 While northern newspapers denounced Graves's remarks, Governor Graves distributed 10,000 copies of the speech throughout Alabama and bragged to reporters that he was "prouder than ever of my appointment and appointee. She's won her spurs by herself without help from anyone. She didn't need any."19 Dixie Graves's popularity in Alabama rose to such an extent that a write–in campaign was started to elect her to the Senate seat. She made it very clear, though, that she was not interested. "I would not consider serving here for any protracted length of time," she said. "My husband's work keeps him in Alabama, and I want to be there."20 Representative Lister Hill won the special election on January 4, 1938, defeating former Senator J. Thomas Heflin.
On January 10, 1938, Graves resigned from the Senate so that her husband might appoint Hill to the seat immediately. This customary practice provided added seniority for Hill over those Senators who would be first elected in November 1938. In a farewell floor speech, Graves took special care to thank her lone female colleague, Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas. "I am grateful indeed, to my fellow woman Senator, a woman who, though she first came to the Senate by appointment, yet has made such a name for herself and for womanhood that her own people have honored her with election to this great office," Graves noted, "and I do devoutly hope that in time to come their example will be followed in other states."21 Senate Democratic Leader Alban Barkley added "no Senator, whether man or woman, who has come into this body in recent years, has made a more favorable impression." Barkley went on to add, "the Senator from Alabama has conducted herself with dignity and poise, with an intelligent and alert interest…"22
Back in Alabama, Dixie Graves resumed her civic activities while taking on new causes, such as the United Service Organization (USO), the American Red Cross, and a statewide recruitment drive for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II. She also became the state advisor to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.23 When her husband died in 1942 while campaigning for a third term as governor, she did not step up to take his place. Bibb Graves had crafted a very personal political machine that did not survive his death.24 While she was in Washington, Dixie Graves had put limits on her political future. "I have always been interested in public affairs and will continue to be, but I am not a candidate for office," she had said in 1937.25 Dixie Graves remained active in local civic activities until her death in Montgomery, Alabama, on January 21, 1965.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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