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
Alma mater Madison Collegiate Institute and Methodist 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.[1] 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."[2]

Women's suffrage[edit]

A prominent suffragist in the women's suffrage movement 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 min but demanded Felton stop speaking after the allotted 30 min. Felton ignored him and spoke for an extra 15 min, at one point making fun of Rutherford and implicitly accusing her of hypocrisy. However, the Georgia legislative committee did not pass the debated women's suffrage bill.[3] 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.[4]

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...."[5]

Racial views[edit]

Felton owned slaves before the Civil War,[6] and she was the last member of either houses of Congress to have been a slave owner.[7]

Felton was a white supremacist and racist. She claimed, for instance, that the more money that Georgia spent on black education, the more crimes blacks committed.[8] 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."[8]

Felton considered "young blacks" who sought equal treatment "half-civilized gorillas," and ascribed to them a "brutal lust" for white women.[9] While seeking suffrage for women, she decried voting rights for blacks, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.[10]

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.[11]

Felton also advocated more lynchings of black men, saying that such was "elysian" compared to the rape of white women.[12] 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."[13]


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[14][15] and a supportive campaign launched by the women of Georgia.[16] Felton thus became the first woman seated in the Senate 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.[17]


  • "A Senator of the U.S., a woman, is still a sort of political joke with our masculine leaders in party politics.... But the trail has been blazed! The road is apparently rough—maybe rocky—but the trail has been located. It is an established fact. While it is also a romantic adventure, it will ever remain an historical precedent—never to be erased.” Nov. 7, 1922[18]
  • "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." – Address to the Senate, November 21, 1922
  • "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." August 11, 1897
  • "Savage tribes used physical force to manage their women. The club and the lash were their only arguments. Moslem fanatics go a step further in saying women have no souls" – Why I Am a Suffragist? essay, dated May 14. 1915[19]
  • "This women's movement is a great movement of the sexes toward each other, with common ideals as to government, as well as common ideals in domestic life, where fully developed manhood must seek and find its real mate in the mother of his children, as well as the solace of his home." – Why I Am a Suffragist?[20]
  • "I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all. Is that fair?"[21]
  • On slavery: "There were abuses, many of them. I do not pretend to defend these abuses. There were kind masters and cruel masters. There were violations of the moral law that made mulattoes as common as blackberries. In this one particular slavery doomed itself. When white men were willing to put their own offspring in the kitchen and corn field and allowed them to be sold into bondage as slaves and degraded as another man's slave, the retribution of wrath was hanging over this country and the South paid penance in four bloody years of war." – from her 1919 autobiography Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth[22]
  • "There was never a more loyal woman in the South after we were forced by our political leaders to go to battle to defend our rights in ownership of African slaves, but they called it "States' Rights," and all I owned was invested in slaves and my people were loyal and I stood by them to the end. Like General Lee I could not fight against my kindred in a struggle that meant life or death to them. Nevertheless I am now too near the borderland of eternity to withhold my matured conscientious and honest opinion. If there had been no slaves there would have been no war. To fight for the perpetuation of domestic slavery was a mistake. The time had come in the United States to wipe out this evil. The South had to suffer, and even when our preachers were leading in prayer for victory, during the war, and black-robed mothers and wives were weeping for their dead ones, who perished on the field of battle, I had questions in my own mind as to what would be the end of it." – from Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jennifer Steinhauer (March 21, 2013). "Once Few, Women Hold More Power in Senate". The New York Times. Retrieved March 30, 2014. 
  2. ^ Numan Bartley, The Creation of Modern Georgia (1983) p 121
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Cornerstones of Georgia History, p. 168
  6. ^ Felton, Rebecca Latimer (1919). Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. Atlanta: Index Printing Company. p. 253. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ a b Litwack, p. 100
  9. ^ Litwack, p. 213
  10. ^ Litwack, p. 221
  11. ^ Litwack, pp. 282–83
  12. ^ Litwack, pp. 304, 313
  13. ^ Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, p. 125 (Modern Library 2003).
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ McHenry, Robert (January 9, 2008). "Persons of Color and Gender in National Politics". Brittanica Blog. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ "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. 
  18. ^ "Who was Rebecca L. Felton?". Banana Stew. August 2, 2005. 
  19. ^ Cornerstones of Georgia History, p. 165
  20. ^ Cornerstones of Georgia History, p. 169
  21. ^ Dittmer, John (1980). Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-252-00813-9. 
  22. ^ Felton, p.79
  23. ^ Felton, p. 86


  • 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]

United States 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