Historic moments do not often happen on a particular schedule or with great fanfare. Often, great moments happen quietly and unexpectedly. It was one of those moments in which a quiet widow, Pearl Oldfield, became the first woman to represent Arkansas in Congress.
Born Fannie Pearl Peden in December 1876 near Cotton Plant in southern Woodruff County, the future congresswoman grew up in a farm family. She was very intelligent, and at the age of 14, she enrolled at Arkansas College (the present-day Lyon College) in nearby Batesville.
Near the turn of the century, she met William Oldfield, a one-time teacher, Spanish-American War veteran, and fellow Arkansas College alum. She was taken with the charming young attorney, and the two married in 1901. The two settled in Batesville where her husband won election as Prosecuting Attorney in 1902. William Oldfield ran for Congress in 1906 but lost the Democratic nomination to longtime incumbent Stephen Brundidge. He won election to Congress easily in 1908 and rapidly climbed the political ladder.
Pearl's husband was respected in Congress. He became chairman of the House Committee on Patents in 1909 and eventually became the Democratic Whip, the party leader in charge of organizing votes for different bills. Pearl Oldfield proudly supported her husband's political career and was content with life as a housewife. In 1928, as her husband sought his eleventh term, unopposed, Democratic leaders sent him to campaign with other aspiring congressional candidates to boost their fortunes. He enthusiastically traveled across the country, but the efforts wore him out. After he won his own re-election, Oldfield had to have gallbladder surgery, but died on November 19, 1928.
A special election would be held to fill the remaining four months of her husband's term and the term he had just won. Pearl Oldfield was in deep mourning over her husband's death but his political allies urged her to run in his memory, and she reluctantly agreed. Local Democratic leaders voted to waive the primary and name her the party nominee by acclamation. The move was protested by R. W. Tucker, who ran against her as an independent candidate. With fond memories of her husband, sympathy for her status as a widow, and helped by her late husband's political allies, she won easily.
Pearl Oldfield was only the ninth woman to serve in Congress. Women had only won the right to vote less than a decade before. Only six women served in the House of Representatives when she was sworn in on January 9, 1929. She would be joined by three more women on March 4 who had won their seats in the 1928 election. Oldfield was the first women from any of the old Confederate states to serve in the lower house.
Oldfield, however, was not the first southern woman to serve in either body. Rebecca Felton of Georgia at age 87 became the first woman to serve in the U. S. Senate, though only for a single day in November 1922. Arkansas would send its first woman to the U. S. Senate, Democrat Hattie Caraway of Jonesboro, in December 1931 as only the second woman in the Senate overall.
She never sought the limelight, but she worked hard and was respected by her colleagues. Affectionately called "Miss Pearl" by her supporters, she listened intently to the concerns of her constituents. As the Great Depression deepened across Arkansas, those concerns only grew. She argued passionately on the floor of Congress for $15 million for farmers suffering through a prolonged drought. She served on the Committee on Coinage and the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, overseeing the care of federal buildings. She introduced 28 bills in her short time in Congress, mostly infrastructure and work relief projects. Four bills calling for new bridge construction were passed though she was in the minority party.
In October 1930, Rep. Otis Wingo, a nine-term representative of Southwest Arkansas, died in office. Wingo was running unopposed for his tenth term representing the Fourth District when he died. His wife, Effiegene Wingo, won the special election to complete his term and the general election for the full term for which he was running.
Wingo took her seat on November 4 while Oldfield wound up her term in Congress. Arkansas, as a result, became the first state in the nation to have two women serving in Congress at the same time. The state has not been represented by as many women in Congress at the same time since.
Oldfield did not run for re-election, and her term ended on March 4, 1931. She quietly retired to her home in Washington after her term ended. She traveled periodically to Arkansas and spent time with her niece and nephew. She worked with children's charities until her death at age 85 in 1962.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.