FELTON, Rebecca Latimer

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
1835–1930

Biography

Rebecca Felton’s brief and essentially symbolic service in the Senate stood in contrast to her decades of participation in Georgia politics and civic affairs. Outspoken, determined, and irascible, Felton was involved in public life from the 1870s through the 1920s. She first entered politics during her husband’s successful campaign for the House of Representatives and went on to work as a lecturer and newspaper writer, before becoming the first woman to serve in the United States Senate.

Rebecca Ann Latimer was born on June 10, 1835, in De Kalb County, Georgia, to Charles Latimer and Eleanor Swift. She attended private schools in the area before graduating from Madison Female College in 1852. She married William Harrell Felton, a physician and Methodist preacher, in 1853. They lived on a farm near Cartersville, Georgia, and eventually had four sons and a daughter. During the Civil War, William Felton served as a surgeon despite Rebecca’s opposition to secession. Following the war, they worked to restore their heavily damaged farm, and she taught school. Rebecca Felton managed her husband’s successful 1874 campaign for Congress when he ran as an Independent Democrat representing up–country Georgia. William served in the U.S. House (1875–1881) and, later, the state house of representatives (1884–1890). Rebecca continued to be a close adviser during his three terms in the House, serving as congressional secretary, and later as his aide in the state legislature. In 1894 William Felton ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House on the Populist ticket. “Though now a feeble old man,” writes Robert Preston Brooks, “he was full of fire and an antagonist to be dreaded.” He died in late 1909 at the age of 87.1

The Feltons’ political partnership introduced Rebecca Felton to politics and public service. She was an active participant in her husband’s campaigns. “I made appointments for speaking, recruited speakers, answered newspaper attacks, contracted for the printing and distribution of circulars and sample ballots,” she recalled, “and more than all, kept a brave face to the foe and a smiling face to the almost exhausted candidate.” Her presence on the campaign trail—an unusual place to find a woman then—drew fire from William’s opponents. She would later recall, “I did not stop to think what a change this was for a young woman considered only an ornament and household mistress.” As William’s congressional secretary in “Washington City,” she managed her husband’s correspondence and speeches while writing columns for two local newspapers. She was soon known as “our Second Representative from the Seventh.”2

As William’s career came to an end, Rebecca began building on what she had learned and experienced. It was her participation in managing Georgia’s exhibits at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 held in Chicago that sparked her interest in national politics. Felton had come into contact with other women activists from around the nation and endorsed many of the crusades of Southern progressivism, including temperance and prison reform. Rebecca also was a gifted writer, whose vigorous prose had made her husband’s campaigns memorable. Husband and wife founded a weekly newspaper, Cartersville Free Press, and she wrote many of its columns. Her column, “The Country Home,” appeared in the Atlanta Journal for nearly two decades from 1899 into the 1920s. She also wrote three books: My Memoirs of Georgia Politics (1911), Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (1919), and The Romantic Story of Georgia’s Women (1930).3

It was through her writings that Felton became a visible presence in Georgia politics. She supported women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and public education, especially vocational training for girls, while fighting the state’s system of convict leasing. Felton was also prone to making harsh personal attacks on perceived enemies and articulated an often brutal vision of social order. She espoused conventional views about labor–management issues, defending working conditions in southern cotton mills and criticizing labor unions. Looking back on an age noted for intolerance and racism, historians have characterized Felton’s judgments about African Americans as especially vicious. Black rapists were of particular concern to Felton and to southerners who shared her views. She blamed the use of liquor to purchase black votes for an increase in threats to southern womanhood. Her views drew national attention when she said in an 1897 address that “if it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.”4

Felton’s personal determination, if not her varied political views, was much in evidence in her fleeting Senate career. The sudden death of Senator Tom Watson, an old Populist ally of Felton’s, on September 26, 1922, four days after the end of the 67th Congress (1921–1923), gave Governor Thomas Hardwick an opportunity. An earlier opponent of the 19th Amendment, Hardwick saw a chance to erase this blot among women voters while giving his own political career a boost. Announcing his candidacy in the special election to fill Watson’s unexpired term, the governor decided to appoint a woman to the seat on an ad interim basis. He first offered the appointment to Watson’s widow, and when she turned it down, he offered the post to Felton. “It is unfortunate that an elected successor will prevent her from being sworn in,” the governor announced. Felton was appointed on October 3rd to serve until a successor was elected, and Hardwick scheduled for mid–October the primary that would begin the process for filling the unexpired Senate term. Felton received the appointment certificate in a public ceremony held in Cartersville on October 7th. Governor Hardwick reminded the crowd that he had originally opposed women’s suffrage but said he now believed “it was right” to extend the right to vote to women. Felton said, “the biggest part of this appointment lies in the recognition of women in the government of our country. It means, as far as I can see, there are now no limitations upon the ambitions of women. They can be elected or appointed to any office in the land. The word ’sex’ has been obliterated entirely from the Constitution.” The press was filled with sympathetic stories about the first woman to become Senator, but they also lambasted Governor Hardwick over his transparent political ploy. The Pittsburgh Gazette–Times called the appointment “merely a pretty sentiment…an empty gesture.” Suffragists began a petition campaign requesting President Warren G. Harding to call Congress into special session and thus allow Felton to be sworn in as Senator before her successor was elected. “It would be too expensive,” the president responded, “to summon Congress just to seat a single senator.” On October 17, Georgia supreme court justice Walter George defeated Governor Hardwick in the primary to fill the rest of Senator Watson’s term.5

Now the situation changed. The 17th Amendment provided for a gubernatorial appointment until a successor was elected. In Georgia, dominated by the Democratic Party, winning the primary was tantamount to winning the general election. Once George won the election in November, Felton’s tenure as Senator would come to an end. This was certainly how George read the situation. He feared that Georgia would have three Senators on its payroll after the fall elections. When in early November President Harding suddenly called Congress into special session, to begin November 20, 1922, for a Ship Subsidy Bill, an opportunity for Felton to be sworn in suddenly appeared. The 87–year–old Felton convinced Senator–elect George to allow her to present her credentials during the special session. George warned her that this maneuver would be vulnerable to any Senator’s objection, but Felton was willing to take the chance. She checked further with Georgia Secretary of State S.G. McLendon, who told her that he had sent the official certificate of her appointment to the Senate and saw no reason against her being sworn in. On the day of the special session, Felton took her seat in the Senate Chamber, and the following day she was sworn in as that body’s first woman Member. It turned out that she was the oldest Senator, too. The swearing–in ceremony was delayed by Montana Senator Thomas J. Walsh, who in a careful address examined the objections to seating Felton and the arguments from Senate precedents that seemed to allow it. Walsh’s position was that if the Senate chose to seat her, it should be done because “she was entitled to take the oath” rather than “as a favor, or as a mere matter of courtesy or being moved by the spirit of gallantry.” A day later, when the Senate first proceeded to business beneath a gallery filled with women assembled for the occasion, Felton made some brief remarks in which she made a prediction: “When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but a 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 then gave her seat to George, who was present for the occasion. Although her Senate service began with her appointment on October 3rd, Felton served just 24 hours after taking the oath of office in open Senate session. Thus she gained the dubious distinction of being the Senator with the shortest term of service while the chamber was in open session.6

Felton returned to Cartersville, Georgia, and continued to write on public affairs. The “grand old woman of Georgia” made a brief appearance at the Capitol in 1927 when Georgia added a statue of Alexander Stephens to the National Statuary Hall Collection. She died in Atlanta on January 24, 1930, at the age of 95.7

Footnotes

1Robert Preston Brooks, “Felton, Rebecca Latimer,” Dictionary of American Biography on CD–ROM (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998; originally published in 1931). The children were John, Mary Eleanor (died in infancy), William Harrell, Jr., Howard Erwin, and Paul Aiken (died in infancy); Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 25–26.

2Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 26–27.

3Ibid., 28–29; W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “Felton, Rebecca Latimer,” American National Biography, 7 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 808–810.

4Brundage, “Felton, Rebecca Latimer,” ANB.

5Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 19–21.

6Ibid., 21–22; 34–36.

7“Statue Unveiled to Vice President of Confederacy,” 9 December 1927, Washington Post: 2; “Mrs. Felton, Once Senator, Is Seriously Hurt in Crash,” 4 March 1929, Washington Post: 10 ; “Georgians Mourn Mrs. Rebecca Felton,” 27 January 1930, New York Times: 19.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Emory University
Robert W. Woodruff Library

Atlanta, GA
Papers: In Medora Field Perkerson papers, 1905-1966 (bulk 1920-1960).

University of Georgia
Hargrett Library for Rare Books and Manuscripts

Athens, GA
Papers: 1835-1930. 4,812 items. Letters, speeches, scrapbooks, articles, clippings, accounts, sheet music, and greeting cards chiefly pertaining to Georgia politics, women's rights, the temperance movement, penal reform, education, religion, banking laws, and other national and state affairs. Finding aid.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Chamberlin, Hope. "Benefit of the Doubt," A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress, 19-37. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973.

Felton, Rebecca Latimer. Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. 1919. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

___. My Memoirs of Georgia Politics. Atlanta: Index Printing Co., 1911 (memoirs of William H. Felton, written by Rebecca Felton).

"Rebecca Latimer Felton," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Floyd, Josephine Bone. "Rebecca Latimer Felton, Champion of Women's Rights." Georgia Historical Quarterly 30 (June 1946): 81-104.

___. "Rebecca Latimer Felton, Political Independent." Georgia Historical Quarterly 30 (March 1946): 14-34.

Hirsch, Eleanor G. "Grandma Felton and the U.S. Senate." Mankind: The Magazine of Popular History 4 (1974): 52-57.

Hunter, Joan Conerly. "Rebecca Latimer Felton." Master's thesis, University of Georgia, 1944.

Mellichamp, Josephine. "Rebecca Latimer Felton." In Senators from Georgia, pp. 224-29. Huntsville, AL: Strode Publishers, 1976.

Talmadge, John E. "Rebecca Latimer Felton." In Georgians in Profile: Historical Essays in Honor of Ellis Merton Coulter, edited by Horace Montgomery, pp. 277-302. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1958.

___. Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1960.

___. "Rebecca Latimer Felton, Georgian." Georgia Review 9 (Spring 1955): 65-73.

___. "The Seating of the First Woman in the United States Senate." Georgia Review 10 (Summer 1956): 168-74.

Whites, LeeAnn. "Rebecca Latimer Felton and the Wife's Farm: The Class and Racial Politics of Gender Reform." Georgia Historical Quarterly 76 (Summer 1992): 354-72.

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