Rebecca Latimer Felton

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Rebecca Latimer Felton
Reb Felton-Geo Senate.jpg
United States Senator
from Georgia
In office
November 21, 1922 – November 22, 1922
Appointed by Thomas Hardwick
Preceded by Thomas Watson
Succeeded by Walter George
Personal details
Born Rebecca Ann Latimer
(1835-06-10)June 10, 1835
Decatur, Georgia, U.S.
Died January 24, 1930(1930-01-24) (aged 94)
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) William Felton
Education Madison Female College

Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton (June 10, 1835 – January 24, 1930) was an American writer, lecturer, reformer, and politician who became the first woman to serve in the United States Senate, though only serving for one day.[1][2] She was the most prominent woman in Georgia in the Progressive Era, and was honored by appointment to the Senate. She was sworn in November 21, 1922, and served just 24 hours. At 87 years, nine months, and 22 days old, she was the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate. To date, she is also the only woman to have served as a Senator from Georgia. Her husband William Harrell Felton was a member of the United States House of Representatives and Georgia House of Representatives and she ran his campaigns. She was a prominent society woman; an advocate of prison reform, women's suffrage and educational modernization; a white supremacist and slave owner; and one of the few prominent women who spoke in favor of lynching. Bartley reports that by 1915 she "was championing a lengthy feminist program that ranged from prohibition to equal pay for equal work."[3]

Early life[edit]

Felton was born in Decatur, Georgia on June 10, 1835. She was the daughter of Charles Latimer, a prosperous planter, merchant, general store owner. Charles was a Maryland native who moved to DeKalb County in the 1820s, and his wife, Eleanor Swift Latimer, was from Morgan, Georgia. Felton was the oldest of four children; her sister, Mary Latimer, also became prominent in women's reforms in the early 20th century. When she was 15, her father sent her to live with relatives in the town of Madison so she could attend Methodist Female College, from which she graduated at the top of her class at age 17 in 1852.[4]

In 1853, she married William Harrell Felton at her home and moved to live with him on his plantation just north of Cartersville, Georgia. She gave birth to five children, but only Howard Erwin Felton survived childhood. In the aftermath of the Civil War, unable to rely on slave labor as a means of producing income, Felton and her husband opened a school in Cartersville, where she taught mathematics and music for two years.[4]

Women's suffrage[edit]

A prominent activist for women's suffrage in Georgia, Felton found many opponents in anti-suffragist Georgians such as Mildred Lewis Rutherford. During a 1915 debate with Rutherford and other anti-suffragists before the Georgia legislative committee, the chairman allowed each of the anti-suffragists to speak for 45 minutes but demanded Felton stop speaking after 30 minutes. Felton ignored him and spoke for an extra 15 minutes, at one point making fun of Rutherford and implicitly accusing her of hypocrisy. However, the Georgia legislative committee did not pass the suffrage bill.[5] Georgia was later the first state to reject the Nineteenth Amendment when it was proposed in 1919, and unlike most other states in the Union, Georgia did not allow women to vote in the 1920 presidential election.[6]

Felton criticized what she saw as the hypocrisy of Southern men who boasted of superior Southern "chivalry" but opposed women's rights, and she expressed her dislike of the fact that Southern states resisted women's suffrage longer than other regions of the US. She wrote, in 1915, that women were denied fair political participation

except in the States which have been franchised by the good sense and common honesty of the men of those States—after due consideration, and with the chivalric instinct that differentiates the coarse brutal male from the gentlemen of our nation. Shall the men of the South be less generous, less chivalrous? They have given the Southern women more praise than the man of the West—but judged by their actions Southern men have been less sincere. Honeyed phrases are pleasant to listen to, but the sensible women of our country would prefer more substantial gifts....[7]

Racial views[edit]

After she was married at age eighteen, Felton and her husband owned slaves before the Civil War,[8] and she was the last member of either house of Congress to have been a slave owner.[9]

Felton was a white supremacist. She claimed, for instance, that the more money that Georgia spent on black education, the more crimes blacks committed.[10] For the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition, she "proposed a southern exhibit 'illustrating the slave period,' with a cabin and 'real colored folks making mats, shuck collars, and baskets—a woman to spin and card cotton—and another to play banjo and show the actual life of [the] slave—not the Uncle Tom sort.'" She wanted to display "the ignorant contented darky—as distinguished from Harriet Beecher Stowe's monstrosities."[10]

Felton considered "young blacks" who sought equal treatment "half-civilized gorillas," and ascribed to them a "brutal lust" for white women.[11] While seeking suffrage for women, she decried voting rights for blacks, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.[12]

In 1899, a massive crowd of white Georgians tortured, mutilated, and burned a black man, Sam Hose, who purportedly had killed a white man in self-defense but had not committed the rape of the (white) woman whites accused him of. The crowd sold parts of his physical remains as souvenirs. Felton said that any "true-hearted husband or father" would have killed "the beast" and that Hose was due less sympathy than a rabid dog.[13]

Felton also advocated more lynchings of black men, saying that such was "elysian" compared to the rape of white women.[14] On at least one occasion, she stated that white Southerners should "lynch a thousand [black men] a week if it becomes necessary" to "protect woman's dearest possession."[15]

Day as a Senator[edit]

Rebecca L. Felton

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 19th Amendment, Hardwick chose Felton to serve as senator on October 3, 1922.

Congress was not expected to reconvene until after the election, so the chances were slim that Felton would be sworn in. 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 sworn in. This was due in part to persuasion by Felton[16][17] and a supportive campaign launched by the women of Georgia.[18] Felton thus became the first woman senator and only woman seated in the Senate from Georgia, and served until George took office on November 22, 1922, one day later.

Final years[edit]

Felton was engaged as a writer and lecturer and resided in Cartersville, Georgia. She died in Atlanta, in 1930. Her remains were interred in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Mrs. Felton Dies. Appointed for One-Day Term From Georgia, She Said She Hoped to See Women in Senate. Active Almost to the Last, She Had Gone to Atlanta at 94 to Attend to School Business". The New York Times. January 25, 1930. Retrieved February 3, 2009. Mrs. Rebecca Latimer Felton of Cartersville, a pioneer in the fight for woman's suffrage, for many years a leader in State and national activities and the only woman who ever held a seat in the United States Senate, died at 11:45 o'clock tonight at a local hospital. 
  2. ^ Jennifer Steinhauer (March 21, 2013). "Once Few, Women Hold More Power in Senate". The New York Times. Retrieved March 30, 2014. 
  3. ^ Numan Bartley, The Creation of Modern Georgia (1983) p 121
  4. ^ a b 1972-, Feimster, Crystal Nicole, (2009). Southern horrors : women and the politics of rape and lynching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674061859. OCLC 318876104. 
  5. ^ Phillips LaCavera, Tommie (October 30, 2001). "Among Clarke County's notable women were first black female education administrator; vocal opponent of women's suffrage". Athens Banner-Herald. 
  6. ^ Grant, Donald L.; Grant, Jonathan (2001). The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press. p. 335. ISBN 978-0-8203-2329-9. 
  7. ^ Cornerstones of Georgia History, p. 168
  8. ^ Felton, Rebecca Latimer (1919). Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. Atlanta: Index Printing Company. p. 253. 
  9. ^ McKay, John (2011). It Happened in Atlanta: Remarkable Events That Shaped History. Guilford, CT: Morris Book Publishing. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-7627-6439-6. 
  10. ^ a b Litwack, p. 100
  11. ^ Litwack, p. 213
  12. ^ Litwack, p. 221
  13. ^ Litwack, pp. 282–83
  14. ^ Litwack, pp. 304, 313
  15. ^ Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, p. 125 (Modern Library 2003).
  16. ^ McHenry, Robert (ed.) (1983). "Felton, Rebecca Ann Latimer (1835-1930)". Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present (2nd ed.). New York: Dover Publ. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-486-24523-2. 
  17. ^ McHenry, Robert (January 9, 2008). "Persons of Color and Gender in National Politics". Brittanica Blog. 
  18. ^ Mayhead, Molly A.; Marshall, Brenda DeVore (2005). Women's Political Discourse: A 21st-Century Perspective. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-0-7425-2909-0. 


  • Felton, Rebecca Latimer (1919). Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. Index Print. 
  • Litwack, Leon F. (1999). Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1st ed.). New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-375-70263-1. 
  • Scott, Thomas A. (ed.) (1995). Cornerstones of Georgia History: Documents That Formed the State. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-1743-4. 
  • Talmage, John E. Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades (1960)
  • Talmage, John E. “Felton, Rebecca Ann Latimer” in Edward T. James, ed., Notable American Women: A biographical dictionary (1971) 1:606-7

External links[edit]

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Thomas Watson
United States Senator (Class 3) from Georgia
Served alongside: William Harris
Succeeded by
Walter George
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Chauncey Depew
Oldest living U.S. Senator
Succeeded by
Adelbert Ames