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Rebecca Felton of Georgia was the first woman to become a US Senator

Rebecca Latimer Felton
Rebecca Latimer Felton
New Georgia Encyclopedia

An American writer who was also a politician and lecturer, Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton of Georgia was the first woman to receive the oath of office in the United States Senate. She was also the most prominent woman during the Progressive Era.

The daughter of Charles Latimer and Eleanor Swift, Rebecca was born on June 10, 1835 and grew up on her family’s plantation in DeKalb County, Georgia. When she graduated from Madison Female College in 1852, the commencement speaker was William H. Felton. Felton served as a state legislator, in addition to being a practicing Methodist minister, physician and planter in Bartow County.

A year following the commencement ceremony, 18-year-old Rebecca married the 30-year-old widower and moved to William's farm just north of Cartersville. Five children would be born to the couple, with only one surviving to adulthood.

William ran for Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District seat in 1874 as an Independent Democrat, rather than be a part of the so-called “Bourbon Democrats” who took control of Georgia in the early 1870s. Prior to the Civil War, he had been a Whig, as had his family in previous generations. William won the election and the next two re-elections, serving from 1875 – 1881 in the US Congress. He then served three terms in Georgia’s state legislature from 1884 – 1890.

During her husband’s campaigns, Rebecca served as William's manager and secretary. In doing so, she had a ringside seat into the world of politics. Rebecca polished up William’s speeches, wrote dozens of articles that were published in various newspapers on his behalf and also helped draft the bills he introduced to Georgia’s legislature. She strongly supported William’s efforts regarding education, prohibition and penal reform, specifically where it concerned putting an end to the convict lease system.

In 1885, the Feltons purchased a newspaper in Cartersville and used it to help promote William’s political efforts. Though she was William’s greatest and most effective supporter, his constituents were known to brag about having two representatives for the price of one. There were others, however, who did not hold a positive attitude towards this arrangement. Speaking from the assembly floor, a fellow representative referred to Felton as “the political she of Georgia”. The unflattering barb was definitely not well received by either member of the husband-wife team.

A prolific writer, Rebecca began a column in the semi-weekly edition of the Atlanta Journal in 1899. Topics she covered in the column ranged from suggestions to make farm life more appealing for young people to advice regarding manners and morals. Some later likened her work to a cross between Hints from Heloise and Dear Abby. While editing The Cartersville Courant for a year, she began writing books. The first, My Memoirs of Georgia Politics was published in 1911 and Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth followed in 1919. Rebecca then garnished this overflowing plate of activities with the number of pamphlets she authored and the numerous lectures she gave.

During any down-time she may have experienced, Rebecca was busy promoting the need for compulsory school attendance and pressed forward the opportunity for poor white girls to receive vocational training. With the help of a woman from New York, Rebecca established the Georgia Training School for Girls in Atlanta and successfully saw the first women students attend the University of Georgia.

Whether she realized it at the time or not, the years Rebecca spent helping to promote her husband’s career were also serving to groom her for roles she would later play. The political skills she honed, along with the friends and enemies that came her way, served to define much of her future.

Rebecca’s lifelong animosity toward Confederate General John B. Gordon was an example of this. From her vantage point, the general-turned-politician and businessman worked against the Feltons for his own selfish gain. She backed up her opinions with various letters, clippings and other items she compiled in a number of scrapbooks which detailed various battles the Feltons fought against Gordon, labeled with such notes on each as “consummate liar” and “lest I forget.”

In 1912, Rebecca served as the state chairman of the Women’s Auxiliary to the “Bull MooseProgressive National Convention which was held in Chicago, along with being the only woman called into conference at the time Warren Harding became President of the United States.

Rebecca Felton gained a seat in the US Senate during 1922 through an unusual situation. While serving as one of Georgia’s senators, Felton family friend Thomas Watson died in office that year and Governor Thomas Hardwick appointed Rebecca to replace him. Prior to Watson’s death, Hardwick entertained visions of the Senate seat for himself. Now, with the need to name a replacement for Watson, Hardwick hoped by appointing Felton to the seat, his chances of winning in the soon-to-be-called special election would be enhanced.

Governor Hardwick’s greatest election concern was the fact he had proclaimed opposition to the 19th Amendment while it was still in the debating stage. After the legislation became a part of the US Constitution, Hardwick feared women in Georgia would hold this against him, thereby dampening his efforts to win the Senate seat. Thus, he stepped out with optimistic hope that by appointing Felton as Watson’s replacement, this would serve to mend fences and win for him the favor of Georgia’s many new women voters. Unfortunately for Hardwick, his efforts at “fence mending” failed and he lost the special election to Walter George.

At the time of Georgia’s special election, Congress was not in session; consequently, Rebecca had not been sworn into office. On November 21, 1922, Senator-elect Walter George resolved the situation. Though largely symbolic in nature, George withheld his oath of office in order to allow then 87-year-old Felton to be sworn in as a senator from Georgia. The following day, George was sworn into office. Though Rebecca Felton served for only one day, she acquired three “first” titles in the Senate - America’s first woman senator, the oldest freshman senator and the senator with the shortest time in office.

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"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.” Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton - Nov. 7, 1922

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