On April 12, 1954, Senator Dwight Griswold of Nebraska died of a heart attack at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Governor Robert B. Crosby appointed Eva Bowring to take Griswold’s seat. Election laws allowed her to serve until the next election. At that time, two seats would become open: a full six-year term, a senior term; and a term that ran over a month from the State Canvassing Board certification of a candidate until the Vice President swore in the Senator on January 3, 1955, a “peewee” term senator. The peewee term would be largely ceremonial.
Hazel Hempel Abel ran for the peewee term. “To me,” she said, “it was more than a short term in the Senate. I wanted Nebraska voters to express their approval of a woman in government. I was a sort of guinea pig.” By winning this election, she became Nebraska’s first elected female senator during a special election, and the first woman to succeed another woman in the United States Senate. Known as “Hurricane Hazel,” she blazed a trail across the political spectrum.
Abel was born in Plattsmouth, Nebraska to Charles and Ella Hempel on July 10, 1888. She went to Omaha High School in Omaha, Nebraska. In the Omaha High School Register, editors wrote that she excelled in German and French. Her 1905 yearbook quote was, “I am as sober as a judge.” Abel passed her college entrance exams at the age of 15, applying to Vassar College where administrators refused her admission because she was too young to be so far away from home. Instead, she went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to study mathematics. While there, she pushed for and succeeded in getting the first women’s dormitory established on campus. After she graduated, she taught in many schools across Nebraska including Omaha for $65 a month.
After college, she married George Abel. They had five children. Together, they started Abel Construction Company in Lincoln, Nebraska for $100. She took over her husband’s business after he died until 1937. She was also instrumental in the formation of a statewide juvenile probation system. Being the first Nebraska woman elected by voters to the Senate; however, was her lasting influence.
Being active in the Republican Party, Abel ran for the “peewee” office. The office had a lot of interest. People told her that she should not waste her time campaigning for a short-term office with so many candidates. She disagreed as she drove an air-conditioned Cadillac across Nebraska, “insisting that women should be elected to public office as well as appointed.
She defeated 15 people in the Republican senatorial primary. She had more than 20,000 votes over the next candidate. She went on to defeat Democratic opponent William H. Meier in the general election by more than 60,000 votes. Vice President Richard Nixon swore Abel into the 83rd Congress on November 8, 1954.
During her term, Abel sat through the McCarthy censure debates and voted for censure. She often referred to herself as, “the sitting duck in the lame-duck Congress.” During her time in the Senate, she attended over 40 social and political functions, talked to President Dwight Eisenhower, and lunched with both Mrs. Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon. In 1960, she ran for governor and finished second to John R. Cooper in the Republican gubernatorial primary. She was the only woman in the political race.
Throughout her life, Hazel Abel left her mark on the political landscape. She was a mother of five, a wife, and a politician. Abel wanted to make the world a better place, so she ran for the Senate and won. Her hard work and determination provides an example to all Nebraskans of how one person can produce positive change.
Voters Are Confused Over Candidates for Senate, (1954, July 28), Retrieved from Fremont Tribune, pg. 1
J. Lawrence, Of Men and Things, (1954, December 16), Retrieved from The Lincoln Star, pg. 4
Omaha High School Register, (1905), Omaha, NE: Douglas Printing Company, pg. 18.
Abel Park, (1982, September 19), Retrieved from Lincoln Journal Star, pg. 63
H. Haggie, (1954, November 4), Nebraska’s New Lady Senator: Mrs. Abel Woman of Varied Talents. Retrieved from Lincoln Journal Star, pg. 12
Hazel Hempel Abel, 1888-1966, (1975, October 5), Retrieved from The Lincoln Star, pg. 2
Campaigning Anyway, (1954, July 18), Retrieved from Sunday Journal and Star, pg. 1
Oaths Taken By State’s New Senators, (1954, November 8), Retrieved from Lincoln Journal Star, pg. 2
Woman Senator Says Eisenhower Could’t Play Too Much Golf. (1954, December 19). Retrieved from St. Louis Post-Dispatch, pg. 93
The Lady Loses Out, (1960, May 12), Retrieved from Detroit Free Press, pg. 10