Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton (June 10, 1835 - January 24, 1930) was an American writer, teacher, reformer, and briefly a politician who became the first woman to serve in the United States Senate, filling an appointment on November 21, 1922. Appointed by the governor as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate on October 3, 1922, Felton filled the vacancy left by the death of Thomas E. Watson, serving just 24 hours until a successor was elected. She was not a candidate for election to fill the vacancy. Felton was born in De Kalb County, Georgia. After attending common schools and graduating from the Madison Female College in 1852, she moved to Bartow County, Georgia, in 1854. As a dedicated reformer, Felton had a keen interest in agricultural and women's issues. She was also her husband's secretary while he was a member of Congress, from 1875 to 1881.
At 87 years of age, Felton is also the oldest freshman senator to ever enter the Senate. As of 2013, she remained the only woman to have served as a Senator from Georgia. She resided in Cartersville, Georgia, until her death in Atlanta, Georgia. Felton was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement in 1997. Some of Felton's views on matters of race and religion were controversial and color how her legacy is viewed. On the other hand, she did distinguish herself enough to be appointed Senator, if only for a day. At the very least, the Georgia governor took the courageous step of appointing a woman to a post never before held by a female, even for such a short period. This opened the door for women to be considered for high public office.
Early life, careers
Born near Decatur, in De Kalb County, Georgia on June 10, 1835, Rebecca Ann Latimer was the daughter of Charles Latimer, a DeKalb County merchant and planter, and his wife, Eleanor Swift Latimer. The young Latimer graduated at the top of her class at Madison Female College, in 1852. That day, the commencement speaker was William H. Felton, a state legislator, physician, Methodist minister, and planter, who had recently widowed and lived in Bartow County. After a year, the valedictorian and the commencement speaker married, and Felton moved to her husband's farm, just north of Cartersville. The couple had five children, with only one, Howard Erwin, surviving childhood.
During the Civil War, the Feltons moved a number of times to avoid Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's pillaging army, which had a policy of not treating the civilian population in its path as neutrals. Deprivations occurring during the Civil War may have been the cause of the deaths of two of their children.
Following the war, the Feltons returned to their destroyed farm, which they rebuilt. At this time, they also began their political involvement. In 1874, Dr. Felton campaigned for and won the Seventh Congressional District seat from Georgia, while Mrs. Felton was his campaign manager, strategist, and wrote his speeches and press releases. The Latimers sided with the Whigs before the Civil War, but neither could support the so-called Bourbon Democrats who had wrested control of the state in the early 1870s. In 1874, William Felton ran for the U.S. Congress as an Independent Democrat, and won that election and then the next two, serving three terms (1875-1881). After losing his Congressional seat, Felton was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1884, serving another three terms in the state legislature until 1890. During this time, Rebecca Felton continued writing his speeches and drafting legislation.
Known for her conservative racial views, in an August 11, 1897 speech Felton spoke of the biggest difficulty facing women on the farm was the danger of black rapists: "When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor justice in the court house to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue-if it needs lynching to protect woman's dearest possession from the ravening human beasts-then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary."
Further, she castigated anyone who dared to question racial policies in the South. When Professor Andrew Sledd of Emory College raised such issues published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1902, she was key to his being forced to resign from the school.
In addition, Felton served as editor of a newspaper owned by both her and her husband. In 1910, at age 74, Felton began writing for the Atlanta Journal's semiweekly edition, which was begun by publisher Hoke Smith to attract Georgia's rural readers. A wide-ranging column, "The Country Home" contained everything from homemaking advice to the writer's opinions on a diversity of topics. One historian described Felton's column, which connected Felton with rural Georgia, as "a cross between a modern-day Dear Abby and Hints from Heloise." The columned continued until her death 20 years later.
Two years after her husband's death, in 1911, Felton published My Memoirs of Georgia Politics, a long and tedious volume, written, according to the title page, by "Mrs. William H. Felton." The book tells of her husband's many political battles, while criticizing those who worked against him.
Felton was a delegate to the newly formed Progressive Party's (also known as the Bull Moose Party) national convention in 1912, which nominated former president, Theodore Roosevelt, as its presidential candidate. The election was won by Woodrow Wilson. She continued working to support election of associates who adhered to her isolationist and growing racist views.
Felton also established a reputation for giving lectures that supported the idea of education for women, women receiving the right to vote (suffrage), and the reform of prisons. She also spoke out against the common practice of leasing convicts for work. While she was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, she also was a staunch critic of Catholics, Jews, Negroes, evolution, and child-labor laws. Due to her years of activism, she became the most well-known woman leader in Georgia, which, according to newspaper headlines, made her an even more powerful public figure than her husband.
In 1922, Governor Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate, when Senator Thomas E. Watson died prematurely. Seeking an appointee who would not be a competitor in the coming special election to fill the vacant seat, and a way to secure the vote of the new women voters alienated by his opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment, Hardwick chose Felton to serve as Senator on October 3, 1922.Did you know?The first woman to serve in the United States Senate was Rebecca Latimer Felton, aged 87, who served for one day
Congress was not expected to reconvene until after the election, so the chances were slim that Felton would be formally sworn in as Senator. However, Walter F. George won the special election despite Hardwick's ploy. Rather than take his seat immediately when the Senate reconvened on November 21, 1922, George allowed Felton to be officially sworn in. Felton thus became the first woman seated in the Senate, and served until George took office on November 22, 1922, one day later. She was 87 years old.
In her only Senate speech-delivered to a large audience in the Senate Chamber on November 21, 1922-Felton concluded with the following prediction: "When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but very few in the next few years, I pledge you that you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness."
Felton was engaged as a writer and lecturer and resided in Cartersville, Georgia, until her death in Atlanta, Georgia on January 24, 1930. She was interred in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville, Georgia. On the day after her death, the U.S. Senate adjourned early to honor the memory of Felton, the only woman to that date to be a member of the Senate. (In 1932, Hattie Caraway of Arkansas was the first woman to be elected senator.)
Rebecca Felton had a remarkably full and diverse life. As a writer, teacher, reformer, and briefly a politician who became the first woman to occupy a seat in the United States Senate, she was an example of woman could accomplish, all while living in the Deep South before women's suffrage. At 87 years old, she was also the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate, and having served one day, she also served the shortest term in the Senate. As of 2013, she remains the only woman to have served as a senator from Georgia.
Since Felton's becoming the first woman senator, there have only been 37 since 1789. In the current U.S. Senate, there are still only 17 women serving out of 100 seats, although women comprise 51 percent of the American population. No women served in the Senate from 1922 to 1931, 1945 to 1947, and 1973 to 1978. While it could be said that Felton's views were provincial, even distasteful, when it came to matters of racial and religious prejudices, she did distinguish herself enough to be appointed Senator, if only for a day.
At the very least, the Georgia governor took the courageous step by appointing a woman to a post never before held by a female, even for such a short period. This opened the door for women to be considered for high public office.
In 1997, Felton was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.
- Felton, Rebecca Latimer. 1980. Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. New York, NY: Arno Press. ISBN 9780405128394.
- Hess, Mary A. 1999. A Call to Honor: Rebecca Latimer Felton and White Supremacy. Dissertation: Thesis (M.A.). Michigan State University.
- Martin, Sarag Hines. 2003. More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Georgia Women. Guilford, CT: TwoDot. ISBN 9780762712700.
- Talmadge, John Erwin. 1960. Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
- Whites, LeeAnn. 2005. Gender Matters: Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Making of the New South. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403963116.