Southern Anthology

Families on the Frontiers of the Old South

Rebecca Latimer

Rebecca Latimer

Female 1835 - 1930  (94 years)

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  • Name Rebecca Latimer 
    Rebecca Latimer Felton
    Rebecca Latimer Felton
    United States Senator
    Born 10 Jun 1835  DeKalb County, Georgia Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Female 
    Occupation 1911 
    My Memoirs of Georgia Politics published  
    Occupation 1919 
    Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth published. 
    Political 21 Nov 1922 - 22 Nov 1922  Washington, District of Columbia Find all individuals with events at this location 
    United States Senator, Georgia. 
    Public Service
    Public Service
    Occupation 1899 - 1926 
    Columnist, The Atlanta Journal. 
    Occupation 1930 
    The Romantic Story of Georgia Women published.  
    Died 24 Jan 1930  Atlanta, Fulton, Georgia Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Buried Oak Hill Cemetery, Cartersville, Bartow, Georgia Find all individuals with events at this location 
    • Source: United States Senate

      October 3, 1922

      First Woman Senator
      Rebecca Felton (D-GA)

      The governor faced a serious political dilemma. He wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, but his earlier opposition to ratification of the Constitution?s equal suffrage amendment seriously alienated many of his state's women voters. How could he gain their allegiance?

      On October 3, 1922, Georgia's Democratic Governor Thomas Hardwick made history by appointing the first woman to a Senate vacancy. He believed this act would appeal to the newly enfranchised women of Georgia. Taking no chances of creating a potential rival for the seat in the upcoming general election, he chose 87-year-old Rebecca Felton. His appointee had led a long and active political life. A well-known suffragist and temperance advocate, she was also an outspoken white supremacist and advocate of racial segregation.

      At the time, the Senate was out of session and not expected to convene until after the election, when the appointed senator would have to step aside for her elected replacement. Felton's supporters deluged President Warren Harding with requests that he call a special session of Congress before the November election so that she could be legitimately seated. Harding ignored these pleas. Thus there was little chance that Felton would actually become a senator by taking the required oath in open session.

      On election day, despite his political calculations, Hardwick lost to Democrat Walter George. When the Senate convened on November 21, 1922, George astutely stepped aside so that Felton could claim the honor of being the first female senator, if only for a day.

      In her address the following day to a capacity audience, the Georgia senator described a cartoon she had received showing the Senate in session. "The seats seemed to be fully occupied, and there appeared in the picture the figure of a woman who had evidently entered without sending in her card. The gentlemen in the Senate took the situation variously," she continued. "Some seemed to be a little bit hysterical, but most of them occupied their time looking at the ceiling," without offering the newcomer a seat. 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."

      Reference Items:

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

    • Source: Georgia Women of Achievement

      Rebecca Latimer Felton
      (1835 - 1930)

      Rebecca Latimer Felton was the first woman to serve in the United States Senate, but that distinction, impressive as it is, does not by itself make her a Georgia Woman of Achievement. She served, after all, for just one day.

      Her appointment to fill a vacancy created by the incumbent?s death was something of a political ploy because it came while the Senate was in recess. Coming in 1922, however, so soon after ratification of the nineteenth amendment, the appointment took on immense symbolic importance, and women around the country campaigned for Mrs. Felton to be officially seated. When President Harding refused to call a special session, Senator Walter F. George agreed to delay presentation of his credentials for a day so that she might make history. In one sense it was a meaningless, perhaps even condescending parody; Mrs. Felton herself called it a "joke." But it acknowledged her years of political activism and set the stage for women to become serious participants in the political process. Minutes after being sworn in, the eighty-seven year old rose to address her temporary colleagues: "Mr. President, the women of this country are going to come and sit here. There may not be very many the next few years, but in time they will come. When they do I pledge that this body will get ability, integrity and unstinted usefulness."

      Rebecca Latimer was born in 1835 to a plantation family in DeKalb County. After graduating first in her class from Madison Female College, she married Dr. William Felton, a widower from Cartersville who was twelve years her senior, a medical doctor, farmer, Methodist minister, state legislator, and congressman.

      As her husband's secretary and counselor, Rebecca Felton had a ringside view of politics. She was an able assistant, effectively supporting Dr. Felton's efforts on behalf of prohibition, education, and penal reform, particularly ending the convict lease system. When he retired from politics, she continued to crusade for a separate women's penal institution, prohibition and women's suffrage. Although she held advanced views on many social and political issues, her opinions on race reflected the prevailing attitudes of white Southerners in that era; in fact, she frequently used racial prejudice to justify her causes.

      Her most far-reaching influence may have been through her writing. In 1899 she began a column for the Atlanta Journal's statewide Semi-Weekly Edition which she used to speak out on everything from making farm life more appealing to young people to advice on morals and manners. She also edited The Cartersville Courant for a year and wrote two books, My Memoirs of Georgia Politics in 1911, and Country life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth in 1919, many pamphlets, and numerous lectures. In addition to the issues already noted she pushed for compulsory school attendance, vocational training for poor white girls (she and a New York woman established the Georgia Training School For Girls in Atlanta), and the admission of women to the University of Georgia.

      She was active in numerous civic and fraternal organizations, and helped to manage the Atlanta and Chicago Expositions in the 1890's. She was State Chairman of the Women's Auxiliary to the "Bull Moose" Progressive National Convention in Chicago in 1912, and the sole woman to be called into conference when Warren Harding was made President of the United States. She bore five children, only one of whom, a son, survived to adulthood. She died in 1930 and is buried in Cartersville.

      As a politically astute and active woman in an age when women were expected to sit quietly at home, an author, lecturer, reformer and leader, we take pride in honoring Rebecca Latimer Felton as a Georgia Woman of Achievement.

      Additional Resources:

      Felton Papers
      University of Georgia Libraries
      (706) 542-3251

      Rebecca Latimer Felton

      * Memoirs of Georgia Politics (1911)
      * Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (1919)

      John E. Talmadge

      * Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades (1960)

    • Source: The New Georgia Encyclopedia
      Author: David B. Parker, Kennesaw State University

      Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930)

      Rebecca Latimer Felton, who died in 1930 at the age of ninety-four, lived a life that was as full as it was long. A writer and tireless campaigner for Progressive Era reforms, especially women's rights, she was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

      Rebecca Ann Latimer was born on June 10, 1835, the daughter of Charles Latimer, a DeKalb County merchant and planter, and his wife, Eleanor Swift Latimer. When the young Latimer graduated, at the top of her class, in 1852 from Madison Female College in Madison, the commencement speaker was William H. Felton, a recently widowed state legislator, physician, Methodist minister, and planter in Bartow County. A year later the valedictorian and the speaker were married, and Rebecca Felton moved to her husband's farm, just north of Cartersville. Of the five children born to the couple, only one, Howard Erwin, survived childhood.

      In 1874 William Felton ran for the Seventh Congressional District seat from Georgia as an Independent Democrat. He had been a Whig before the Civil War (1861-65), as had the Latimers, and neither he nor Rebecca Felton, who served as his campaign manager, cared for the so-called Bourbon Democrats who had taken control of the state in the early 1870s. William Felton won that election and then the next two, serving three terms (1875-81) in the U.S. Congress. From 1884 to 1890 he served another three terms in the state legislature.

      It is important to begin a discussion of Rebecca Felton's career by talking about her husband for two reasons. First, she entered the public arena through her husband's political career.

      She became more than just a campaign manager. She polished his speeches and wrote dozens of newspaper articles, both signed and unsigned, on his behalf. She helped draft the bills that he introduced in the state legislature. In 1885 the Feltons bought a Cartersville newspaper, which she ran for a year and a half to promote her husband. She was undoubtedly his biggest and most effective supporter. William Felton's constituents sometimes bragged that they were getting two representatives for the price of one. Not everyone liked the arrangement, however. A fellow legislator, speaking from the assembly floor, called Felton "the political she of Georgia," an unflattering characterization that greatly angered the husband and wife team.

      Second, until late in her life, Felton herself saw her career as tied completely to her husband's. In 1911, two years after his death, she published My Memoirs of Georgia Politics, a long and tedious volume, written, according to the title page, by "Mrs. William H. Felton." The book details her husband's political battles, denouncing those who worked against him.

      Perhaps more than she realized, the years with her husband developed her political skills and introduced her to the friends and enemies that would define much of the rest of her political life. Chief among these was her lifelong animosity toward John B. Gordon, the Confederate general turned politician and businessman who had, she felt, worked against her husband for his own selfish gain. In her scrapbooks she kept letters, clippings, and other items detailing the Feltons' battles with Gordon and others, annotating them with remarks such as "consummate liar" and "lest I forget."

      Although Felton never rose completely above these personal animosities, her career after her husband's retirement in the 1890s (about the time she turned sixty) was marked more by her own desires for reform. Through speeches and her writings, she helped to effect statewide prohibition and to bring an end to the convict lease system, a system of leasing cheap labor to private companies, which often maintained the convicts in substandard and even inhumane conditions. Both were achieved in 1908. She supported the state university against its opponents?the church-affiliated colleges and those who felt that the state's limited funds should be directed toward improving public schools below the college level. She also spoke out for vocational education opportunities for poor white girls in the state. Not until the early twentieth century did Felton embrace the reform with which she is most associated: woman suffrage. She became the South's best known and most effective champion of women's right to vote. In 1915 writer Corra Harris, a fellow Georgian, published a novel about woman suffrage entitled The Co-Citizens, which features a protagonist based loosely on Felton.

      In 1899 Felton began writing for the semiweekly edition of the Atlanta Journal, an edition started by publisher Hoke Smith to appeal to the state's rural readers. "The Country Home" was a far-ranging column that included everything from homemaking advice to Felton's opinions on almost anything. One historian described it as "a cross between a modern-day 'Dear Abby' and 'Hints from Heloise.'" The column, which continued for more than two decades, provided the most direct link rural Georgians had with Felton.

      Felton was also known for her conservative racial views. In an 1897 speech she said that the biggest problem facing women on the farm was the danger of black rapists. "If it takes lynching to protect women's dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts," she said, "then I say lynch a thousand a week." She condemned anyone who dared to question the South's racial policies; when Andrew Sledd, a professor at Emory College, did just that in an article published in 1902 in the Atlantic Monthly, she was instrumental in forcing his resignation from the school.

      Felton is perhaps best remembered today as the first woman in the U.S. Senate. When Senator Thomas E. Watson died on September 26, 1922, Governor Thomas Hardwick appointed a replacement to serve until a special election could be held. Hardwick pointed out that his appointee would not actually "serve" because Congress was not in session when Watson died, and the next session would not begin until after the special election.

      Hardwick himself wanted to be a senator, and he knew that the person he appointed would have a real advantage (as incumbent) in the special election. So rather than give an edge to a potential opponent, and to get on the good side of Georgia's newly enfranchised women voters (whom he had offended by opposing the Nineteenth Amendment), Hardwick appointed the eighty-seven-year-old Felton on October 3.

      Hardwick lost the special election two weeks later to Walter F. George. When the session opened George allowed Felton to present her credentials before he claimed his seat. She was sworn in at noon on November 21. The next morning she made a speech thanking the Senate for allowing her to be sworn in and noting that the women who followed her would serve with "ability," "integrity of purpose," and "unstinted usefulness." Senator-elect George was then sworn in. Felton's term had lasted for just twenty-four hours.

      Rebecca Felton was an interesting figure: in some ways she was very progressive, an exceptional Georgian; in other ways, she was very much a person of her time and place. She died on January 24, 1930, and is buried in Cartersville's Oak Hill Cemetery. The Rose Lawn Musuem in Cartersville honors the memory of Felton as well as that of Sam Jones, the well-known nineteenth-century preacher from Bartow County.

      In 1997 Felton was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.

      Suggested Reading

      A. Louise Staman, Loosening Corsets: The Heroic Life of Georgia's Feisty Mrs. Felton, First Woman Senator of the United States (Macon, Ga.: Tiger Iron Press, 2006).

      John E. Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1960).

      LeeAnn Whites, "Rebecca Latimer Felton: The Problem of Protection in the New South," in Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times, vol. 1., ed. Ann Short Chirhart and Betty Wood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009).

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

    Person ID I4969  Dickinson
    Last Modified 2 Apr 2010 

    Family William Harrell Felton, M.D.,   b. 19 Jun 1823, Oglethorpe County, Georgia Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 24 Sep 1909, Bartow County, Georgia Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 86 years) 
    Married 11 Oct 1853  Cass County, Georgia Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
    +1. Howard Erwin Felton, M.D.,   b. 02 Jun 1869, Bartow County, Georgia Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 11 Dec 1925, Floyd County, Georgia Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 56 years)
    Last Modified 3 Apr 2010 
    Family ID F1337  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Event Map
    Link to Google MapsBorn - 10 Jun 1835 - DeKalb County, Georgia Link to Google Earth
    Link to Google MapsPolitical - United States Senator, Georgia. - 21 Nov 1922 - 22 Nov 1922 - Washington, District of Columbia Link to Google Earth
    Link to Google MapsDied - 24 Jan 1930 - Atlanta, Fulton, Georgia Link to Google Earth
    Link to Google MapsBuried - - Oak Hill Cemetery, Cartersville, Bartow, Georgia Link to Google Earth
     = Link to Google Earth 
    Pin Legend  : Address       : Location       : City/Town       : County/Shire       : State/Province       : Country       : Not Set

  • Photos
    Felton, Rebecca Latimer
    Felton, Rebecca Latimer
    United States Senator, Georgia
    Felton, Rebecca Latimer
    Felton, Rebecca Latimer

    Felton, Rebecca Ann Latimer
    Felton, Rebecca Ann Latimer
    Felton, William Harrell
    Felton, William Harrell

  • Sources 
    1. [S009920] Memoirs of Georgia, (Atlanta, Georgia: The Southern Historical Association, 1895), vol. 2, 319.