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  • Senator Graves’s Speech:Dixie Bibb Graves and the Changing Conception of “The Southern Lady”
  • Daniel Burge (bio)

It was tough to see from where she was sitting. as speaker after speaker rose, Senator Dixie Bibb Graves strained to keep up with the debate. Doubtless she pondered her place in this male-dominated political theatre and the bizarre yet serendipitous series of events that catapulted her there. A month earlier, in September of 1937, she was the governor’s wife, a young woman in her forties known affectionately throughout the state of Alabama as Miss Dixie. But today, she was Senator Dixie Bibb Graves of Alabama, the first woman to serve the state in the United States Senate and only the fourth woman to attain the position. Membership in this most exclusive club was a high honor to befall anyone, but Senator Graves was reminded as she listened to the debate engulfing the Senate of the limits placed upon her because of the twin distinctions of her sex and juniority. As a junior member, her desk was placed in the back row, a band known as the Cherokee Strip, and new senators customarily do not make speeches on the floor; as a woman, seniority aside, she was not expected to speak. This, however, did not hamper her. Rising quickly, Senator Graves began to speak. It would be the first time in American history that a woman member addressed the Senate on a pending piece of legislation.1

Senator Graves’s speech lasted for roughly twenty minutes.2 When she concluded, her time in the spotlight ended. Within the space of four months a special election was held and Lister Hill was elected as the new senator from the state of Alabama. Dixie Graves’s fleeting [End Page 253] career had ended. Her speech, once the talk of Washington, was destined to become a historical footnote.3

Nearly forgotten now, Dixie Bibb Graves’s senatorial tenure nonetheless sheds significant light on both the history of Alabama in the 1930s and the changing role of women in that era. This article, therefore, examines Graves’s service, utilizing her biography as a tool to explore the connections between the New Deal, the Progressive movement, and political engagement in the 1930s.4 By relying upon newspapers, personal letters, and autobiographical accounts, this examination will show the trajectory of activist southern women and how they often moved from the self–contained reformist institutions and female clubs of the nineteenth century into the realm of public policy and bureaucratic positions by the 1930s. Historians such as Elizabeth Hayes Turner have traced the rise of women’s activism within the South, but their studies often end with the grant of suffrage to women in 1920.5 By extending past the 1920s and into the 1930s, this study shows that the New Deal often drew upon the talents of women within the South who had developed their activist roots in the Progressive movement decades earlier. The 1930s, in short, was not a period of stagnation for activist southern women but rather one where they continued to emerge into public roles and shape public policy.

This article also explores the way in which women’s entry into government service altered the fundamental definition of what [End Page 254]

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Dixie Bibb Graves being sworn into the United States Senate by Vice President John Nance Garner. Image Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery.

it meant to be a southern lady. Ever since the publication of Anne Firor Scott’s pathbreaking The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930, historians have recognized that southern women had to contend with a culturally constructed definition of womanhood.6 As recent historians have shown, however, this definition was malleable. Beginning in the 1880s with the rise of the Progressive movement, women utilized Protestant churches in southern cities to gradually advance into a more public role, becoming advocates of welfare reform, city beautification projects, and poverty relief programs.7 Indeed, throughout the South, women emerged into the public [End Page 255] forum and “claimed public roles spatially and culturally, by speaking and acting in...


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