Rebecca Latimer Felton

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rebecca Latimer Felton
United States Senator
from Georgia
In office
November 21, 1922[1] – November 22, 1922
Appointed byThomas W. Hardwick
Preceded byThomas E. Watson
Succeeded byWalter F. George
Personal details
Rebecca Ann Latimer

(1835-06-10)June 10, 1835
Decatur, Georgia, U.S.
DiedJanuary 24, 1930(1930-01-24) (aged 94)
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Resting placeOak Hill Cemetery
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseWilliam Harrell Felton
EducationMadison Female College

Rebecca Ann Felton (née Latimer; June 10, 1835 – January 24, 1930) was an American writer, politician, white supremacist, and slave owner who was the first woman to serve in the United States Senate, serving for only one day.[2][3] She was a prominent member of the Georgia upper class who advocated for prison reform, women's suffrage and education reform. Her husband, William Harrell Felton, served in both the United States House of Representatives and the Georgia House of Representatives, and she helped organize his political campaigns. Historian Numan Bartley wrote that by 1915 Felton "was championing a lengthy feminist program that ranged from prohibition to equal pay for equal work yet never accomplished any feat because she held her role because of her husband."[4]

A major figure in American first-wave feminism, Felton was also a white supremacist and the last slave owner to serve in the Senate. She spoke vigorously in favor of lynching African Americans, under the pretense of protecting the sexual purity of European-American women. Most often the African Americans that she admonished were falsely accused of rape.[5]

The most prominent woman in the state of Georgia during the Progressive Era, she was honored near the end of her life by a symbolic one-day appointment to the Senate. Felton was sworn in on November 21, 1922, and served just 24 hours. At the age of 87, she was the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate. Felton was the only woman to have served as a senator from Georgia until the appointment of Kelly Loeffler in 2020, nearly a hundred years later.

Early life[edit]

Felton was born in Decatur, Georgia, on June 10, 1835. She was the daughter of Charles Latimer, a prosperous planter, merchant, and general store owner. Charles was a Maryland native who had 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 Felton was 15, her father sent her to live with close relatives in the town of Madison, where she attended a private school within a local Presbyterian church. She then went on to attend Madison Female College, from which she received a classical liberal arts education.[6] She graduated at the top of her class, at age 17, in 1852.[7]

In October 1853, she married Dr. William Harrell Felton at her home, and she moved to live with him on his plantation just north of Cartersville, Georgia. She gave birth to five children, one daughter and four sons. Only one, Howard Erwin Felton, survived childhood. In the aftermath of the Civil War, their plantation was destroyed. Because they were now unable to rely on slave labor as a means of producing income, Dr. Felton returned to farming as a way to earn money until they had enough savings to open a school. Felton and her husband opened Felton Academy in Cartersville, where she and her husband both taught.[8]

Women's suffrage[edit]

"A Woman of the Century"

By joining the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1886, Rebecca Latimer Felton was able to achieve stature as a speaker for equal rights for white women.[citation needed] Upon her entrance into the public realm, independent of her husband's political career, in the late 19th century, Felton attempted to employ middle-class men to help middle-class women achieve equal status in society. She believed that it was necessary for men to be held accountable, and, during her 1887 address at the Women's Christian Temperance Union state convention, she argued that women were actively fulfilling their duties as wives and mothers, but that men undervalued their importance.[9] She argued that women should have more power inside of the home, with more influence on the decision-making process and proper education being provided both to wives and daughters; she further stated that women should have economic independence through this education, training, and later employment, and that women should have more influence over the children.[10] In 1898, Felton wrote "Textile Education for Georgia Girls" as an attempt to convince Georgia legislators that education for girls was necessary. In this article, she argued that it was a man's responsibility to take care of his wife and children. Therefore, it was his responsibility to ensure his daughters' rights and opportunities were equal to his sons'.[11]

However, this strategy was not working, and, in 1900, Felton joined the women's suffrage movement. This move led her to work for women's rights, including the right to vote, the progressive movement, free public education for women, and admittance into public universities.[12] A prominent activist for women's suffrage in Georgia, Felton found many opponents in anti-suffragist Georgians such as Mildred Lewis Rutherford and Dorothy Blount Lamar. 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.[13] Georgia was later the first state to reject the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution 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.[14] Women in Georgia were not given the right to vote until 1922.

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 white women's suffrage longer than other regions of the United States. 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....[15]

Racial views[edit]

After she was married at age eighteen, Felton and her husband owned slaves before the American Civil War,[16] and she was the last member of Congress to have been a slave owner.[17]

On August 11, 1898, Felton delivered a speech asserting that, given the inability of the church or courts to protect white women from "the ravening human beasts—then I say lynch; a thousand times a week if necessary."[18] Felton's speech was the subject of Alexander Manly's August 18, 1898, Daily Record rebuttal editorial[19] that in turn was used as a pretext for the Wilmington insurrection of November 1898.[20]

Felton was a white supremacist. She claimed, for instance, that the more money that Georgia spent on black people's education, the more crimes black people committed.[21] For the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, 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."[21]

Felton considered "young blacks" who sought equal treatment "half-civilized gorillas", and ascribed to them a "brutal lust" for white women.[22] While seeking suffrage for white women, she decried voting rights for black people, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.[23]

Felton also advocated more lynchings of black men, saying that such was "elysian" compared to the possible rape of white women.[24] On August 11, 1898, Felton gave a speech in Tybee Island, Georgia, to several hundred members of the Georgia State Agricultural Society. She urged an increase in lynchings in order to protect rural white women from being raped by black men.[25][26][27]

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.[28]

— Mrs. W.H. Felton, August 11, 1898

Newspapers reprinted[18] a transcript of Felton's speech to garner support for the Democratic Party (which was at that point in history the Conservative party in America). On August 18, 1898, Alex Manly's Daily Record printed a rebuttal editorial[19] arguing that white rape of black women was much more frequent, and contact between white women and black men was often consensual. Manly's editorial was used[20] as a pretext for the Wilmington Insurrection of November 1898.

Manly was interviewed by the Baltimore Sun three days after the massacre, and he stated that he only had wished to defend "defamed colored men" libeled by Felton. He said that his editorial had been distorted by white newspapers. Felton's response appeared in the November 16 issue of the Raleigh News and Observer: "When the negro Manly attributed the crime to intimacy between negro men and white women of the South the slanderer should be made to fear a lyncher's rope rather than occupy a place in New York newspapers."[5]

In 1899, a massive crowd of white Georgians arrested, tortured, and lynched a black man, Sam Hose, who had been falsely accused of murdering a white man and raping his victim's wife. 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.[29]

Day as a senator[edit]

Felton at her Senate desk

Thomas W. Hardwick, the Governor of Georgia, was planning to run as a candidate in the next election to the U.S. Senate, which was due in 1924. However, the current incumbent Senator Thomas E. Watson died unexpectedly on September 26, 1922. As Governor, Hardwick was entitled to appoint a replacement for Watson until a special election could be arranged. Hardwick sought an appointee who would not be a competitor in the coming election, and to ingratiate himself with the new women voters (who had been alienated by Hardwick's opposition to the 19th Amendment). On October 3, Hardwick therefore selected Felton to serve as senator, because she was a well known and respected representative of the suffrage movement. Congress was not expected to reconvene until after the special election, which was scheduled for November 7, so it was considered unlikely that Felton ever would be sworn in. Walter F. George defeated Hardwick by 55% to 33% in the Democratic Party primary, and was elected unopposed in the special election. Rather than take his seat immediately when the Senate reconvened on November 21, George allowed Felton to be sworn in.[30] This was due in part to persuasion by Felton[30][31] and a supportive campaign launched by the white women of Georgia.[32] George benefited from the gesture, by presenting himself as a friend of the suffrage movement.[33] Felton thus became the first female senator, serving until George took office one day later.[34]

Final years[edit]

Felton was interviewed on film in 1929, discussing her political accomplishments and her memories of witnessing part of the Trail of Tears around the year 1838.[35] Felton continued to write and lecture until her final days, finishing her book, The Romantic Story of Georgia's Women, shortly before her death in Atlanta in 1930. Her remains were interred in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville.[2]

Notable writings[edit]

  • "The Country Home" (1898–1920) – recurring article within the Atlanta Journal[36]
  • My Memoirs of Georgia Politics (1911)
  • Country Life in Georgia in the Days of my Youth (1919)
  • The Romantic Story of Georgia's Women (1930) OCLC 33940186

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "U.S. Senate: Rebecca Felton and One Hundred Years of Women Senators".
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Jennifer Steinhauer (March 21, 2013). "Once Few, Women Hold More Power in Senate". The New York Times. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  4. ^ Bartley, Numan V. (1983). The Creation of Modern Georgia. University of Georgia Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-8203-0668-1. Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  5. ^ a b Zucchino 2020, p. 83-84,87–89,280–281.
  6. ^ Martin, Sara Hines (2002). More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Georgia Women. Guilford, Connecticut: TwoDot. ISBN 978-0-7627-1270-0.
  7. ^ Feimster, Crystal Nicole (2009). Southern horrors: women and the politics of rape and lynching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-06185-9. OCLC 318876104.
  8. ^ Latimer Felton, Rebecca (1930). The Romantic Story of Georgia's Women. Atlanta, Georgia: Atlanta Georgian and Sunday American.
  9. ^ Latimer Felton, Rebecca (1919). Country Life in the Days of my Youth. Atlanta, Georgia: Index Printing Company. p. 294.
  10. ^ Whites, LeeAnn (2005). Gender Matters: Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Making of the New South. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 181.
  11. ^ Mrs. W.H. Felton. "Textile Education for Georgia Girls", in Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library, UGA, Manuscript Collection 81
  12. ^ Martin. More than Petticoats. pp. 52–53.
  13. ^ 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. Archived from the original on April 20, 2019. Retrieved April 19, 2009.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Scott, Thomas Allan (1995). Cornerstones of Georgia History: Documents that Formed the State. University of Georgia Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-8203-1743-4. Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  16. ^ Felton, Rebecca Latimer (1919). Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. Atlanta: Index Printing Company. p. 253. rebecca latimer felton owned slaves.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ a b Holman, J. A. of The Atlanta Journal (August 26, 1898). "Mrs. Felton Speaks / She Makes a Sensational Speech Before the Agricultural Society". The Wilmington Weekly Star. p. 1 – via Wikimedia Commons. The Weekly Star reprinted Holman's Atlanta Journal article. Speech was on August 11, 1897.
  19. ^ a b "A Horrid Slander / The Most Infamous That Ever Appeared in Print in This State". The Wilmington Weekly Star. November 4, 1898. p. 4 – via Wikimedia Commons. The Weekly Star reprinted Manly's August 18, 1898, editorial from The Daily Record.
  20. ^ a b "Citizens Aroused / Emphatic Demand Made That the Editor of the Infamous Daily Record Leave the City and Remove His Plant – An Ultimatum Sent by Committee". The Wilmington Weekly Star. November 11, 1898. p. 2. Archived from the original on January 18, 2023 – via Wikimedia Commons.
  21. ^ a b Litwack 1999, p. 100.
  22. ^ Litwack 1999, p. 213.
  23. ^ Litwack 1999, p. 221.
  24. ^ Litwack 1999, p. 304,313.
  25. ^ Mallonee, Laura (November 21, 2022). "The Nation's First Woman Senator Was a Virulent White Supremacist". Smithsonian Magazine. Archived from the original on December 13, 2023.
  26. ^ "Senate Stories | Rebecca Felton and One Hundred Years of Women Senators". U.S. Senate Historical Office. November 21, 2022. Archived from the original on October 1, 2023.
  27. ^ Holloman, J. A. "'Lynch,' Says Mrs. Felton". The Atlanta Journal. August 12, 1897. p. 1; "Mrs. Felton's Letter". The Atlanta Constitution. August 20, 1897. p. 4.
  28. ^ Jerome Anthony McDuffie (1979). Politics in Wilmington and New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1865–1900: The Genesis of a Race Riot. Ph.D. thesis, Kent State University. According to McDuffie, the speech was delivered in Georgia on August 11, 1897. See
  29. ^ Litwack 1999, p. 282-283.
  30. ^ a b 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. famous american women felton.
  31. ^ McHenry, Robert (January 9, 2008). "Persons of Color and Gender in National Politics". Britannica Blog.
  32. ^ 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.
  33. ^ Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill (1993). New Women of the New South the Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 190.
  34. ^ Buchanan, Paul D. (2009). The American Women's Rights Movement: A Chronology of Events and of Opportunities from 1600 to 2008. Branden Books. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-8283-2160-0.
  35. ^ "Rebecca Latimer – 94yrs old born 1835 – US Senator & Slave owner". YouTube.
  36. ^ "Felton, Rebecca Latimer". History, Art & Archives. United States House of Representatives. Retrieved November 20, 2018.


  • Latimer Felton, Rebecca (1919). Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. Index Print.
  • 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

Works cited[edit]

  • 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.
  • Zucchino, David (2020). Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-2838-6.

External links[edit]

U.S. Senate
Preceded by United States Senator (Class 3) from Georgia
Served alongside: William Harris
Succeeded by
Honorary titles
Preceded by Oldest living U.S. senator
Succeeded by