Rebecca Latimer Felton

Rebecca Latimer Felton
Reb Felton-Geo Senate.jpg
United States Senator
from Georgia
In office
November 21, 1922 – November 22, 1922
Appointed by Thomas W. Hardwick
Preceded by Thomas E. Watson
Succeeded by Walter F. George
Personal details
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.
Resting place Oak Hill Cemetery
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) William Harrell 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, although she served for only one day.[1][2]

Felton was the most prominent woman in Georgia in the Progressive Era, and was honored by appointment to the Senate. She was sworn in on 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. She 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.

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 a woman who spoke vigorously in favor of lynching. Numan Bartley wrote that by 1915 she "was championing a lengthy feminist program that ranged from prohibition to equal pay for equal work."[3]

Early life

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 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.[4] She graduated at the top of her class at age 17 in 1852.[5]

In October 1853, she married Dr. 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, 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 income until there was enough money to open a school. Felton and her husband opened Felton Academy in Cartersville, where she and her husband both taught.[6]

Women's suffrage

By joining the Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1886, Rebecca Latimer Felton was able to achieve stature as a speaker for equal rights for white women. Upon her entrance into the public realm independent of her husband's political career in the late 19th century, Felton attempted to employ elite men to help elite 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 men undervalued their importance.[7] She argued that women should have more power inside of the home with more influence on the decision making process, proper education should be provided for both wives and daughters, women should have economic independence through this education, training, and later employment and women should have more influence over the children.[8] 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 daughter had equal rights and opportunities to his sons.[9]

However, this strategy was not working and in 1900 Felton officially joined the Women's Suffrage Movement. This move led her to work tirelessly for white women's rights, including the right to vote, the Progressive Movement, free public education for women, and admittance into public universities.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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 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. ...[13]

Racial views

After she was married at age eighteen, Felton and her husband owned slaves before the Civil War,[14] and she was the last member of either house of Congress to have been a slave owner.[15]

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." [16] Felton's speech was the subject of Alexander Manly's August 18 Daily Record rebuttal editorial [17] that in turn was used as a pretext for the Wilmington insurrection of November 1898. [18]

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.[19] 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."[19]

Felton considered "young blacks" who sought equal treatment "half-civilized gorillas", and ascribed to them a "brutal lust" for white women.[20] While seeking suffrage for women, she decried voting rights for black people, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.[21]

Felton also advocated more lynchings of black men, saying that such was "elysian" compared to the rape of white women.[22] On August 11, 1898, Felton gave a speech in Tybee, 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.

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.[23]

—  Mrs. W.H. Felton, August 11, 1898

Newspapers reprinted[16] a transcript of Felton's speech to garner support for the Democratic Party. On August 18, 1898, Alex Manly's Daily Record printed a rebuttal editorial[17] arguing that white rape of black women was much more frequent, and contact between white women and black men is often consensual. Manly's editorial was used[18] 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."[24]

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 and was falsely accused by unscrupulous journalists of raping his victim's wife. 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.[25]

Day as a senator

Felton at her Senate desk

In 1922, Governor Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate, when Senator Thomas E. Watson died unexpectedly. 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, on October 3, to serve as senator. 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, George allowed Felton to be sworn in. This was due in part to persuasion by Felton[26][27] and a supportive campaign launched by the white women of Georgia.[28] Felton benefited as a well-known and respected representative of the suffrage movement when politicians desired to enhance their standings with the newly acquired women voters by means of a symbolic gesture.[29] Felton thus became the first female senator, and served until George took office one day later.

Final years

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.[1] After dedicating over five decades to white women's suffrage, Felton returned to Cartersville and continued to write and lecture until her final days, finishing her book The Romantic Story of Georgia's Women only shortly before her death. She died in Atlanta, in 1930. Her remains were interred in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville.[1]

Important writings

  • "The Country Home" (1898–1920) – recurring article within the Atlanta Journal[30]
  • 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