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Women's History Month: Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930)

March 17, 2015
Black and white profile of Rebecca Latimer Felton

Georgia boasts putting the first woman in the U.S. Senate. Well, at least for a day.

Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930) led an active and influential life. Born in DeKalb County to a merchant and planter, Rebecca received an education atypical to women of her era, graduating as valedictorian in 1852 from Madison Female College. A year later, she married the speaker at her graduation, William Felton, who was a physician, Methodist minister, farmer in Bartow County and state legislator — something that became useful to Rebecca’s life later. They moved to William’s farm close to Cartersville.

The young couple became a power team, especially in the political world. In 1874 William won the Seventh Congressional District race. He served 3 terms in the U. S. Congress until 1881, and served another 3 terms in the Georgia General Assembly from 1884 to 1890. Rebecca was his campaign manager, speechwriter, newspaper publisher and bill writer. Occasionally she even signed documents on his behalf. William’s constituents supposedly bragged that they got two representatives for the price of one. Throughout this time, Rebecca grew her political skills.

Reforming a People

After William retired in the 1890s, Rebecca, who was approaching her 60s, continued to lobby for reform in Georgia and the country. Some of the highlights of her reform efforts include:

  • Working against the convict lease system, helping end it in 1908.
  • Working to increase vocational education, especially for poor girls in Georgia.
  • Advocating for women’s suffrage. Some claim that Corra Harris used Rebecca as an inspiration for her protagonist in The Co-Citizens.

However, Rebecca didn’t stand for everything we might consider progressive today. She vehemently agreed with prohibition, and she was somewhat of a racist in her antiquated views of how black men treated white women.

First Woman Senator

To understand the context of this situation, we need to learn more about 3 Georgia politicians:

In 1920, Georgia native and controversial leader Thomas E. Watson was elected to the U. S. Senate. However, 2 years later in September 1922, Watson suddenly died. Governor Thomas W. Hardwick had to find a replacement Senator until a special election could occur.

Who would he pick? Naturally, politics always has a say.

Hardwick actually wanted the newly opened Senator position for himself and he knew whoever he put in the seat would have the upper hand in the special election. Something else he had to take into account was that women finally had the right to vote in 1922, and Hardwick was already on their bad side for opposing the 19th Amendment. So rather than give his potential opponent a competitive edge and to help placate the women of Georgia, Hardwick picked Rebecca — 87 at the time. At the time of the appointment, Congress was not actually in session, so the new person picked wouldn’t technically serve in Congress — something Hardwick was clear to point out after appointing Rebecca.

Two weeks later, Georgia held the special election, and Hardwick ended up losing to Walter F. George. On the first day of session, Senator-elect George let Rebecca present her credentials, claim a seat in Congress and be sworn in at noon. The next day, she gave a speech about how the women who followed her would now have the ability to serve with “integrity of purpose” and “unstinted usefulness.” After her speech, George was sworn in, closing Rebecca’s term as U.S. Senator after 24 hours.  So contrary to Hardwick’s plan, Rebecca actually did get to serve in the U. S. Senate. For a day.

Rebecca accomplished much in her life. She was always a strong woman who fought for what she thought was right. She died in 1930 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville. In 1997, Rebecca joined the other extraordinary Georgia women as a prestigious Georgia Woman of Achievement.

Photo Courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia

About the Author

Bethany McDaniel is the Editorial Director for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, Ga., with degrees in Visual Communication and History.