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Rebecca Latimer Felton was a writer and politician from the United States who served as the first woman in the U.S. Senate for 24-hours. She ran the successful congressional campaigns for her husband, Senator William Harrell Felton, and wrote extensively on women’s rights, prison reform, and the modernization of education. Felton was also a white supremacist who openly supported lynching black men for the safety of white women.

Youth, Education, and Marriage

Rebecca Ann Latimer was born in De Kalb County, Georgia, on June 10, 1835, to parents Charles Latimer and Eleanor Smith.[1] Her father worked as a planter and merchant. She graduated from Madison Female College in Madison, Georgia 1852 as valedictorian.[2] The commencement speaker was a recently widowed physician, planter, Methodist minister, and state legislator from Bartow County named William Harrell Felton. Rebecca Latimer and Felton married in 1853. They lived on a farm north of Cartersville, Georgia, and produced a daughter and fours sons.[3] Only one son, Howard Erwin, lived till adulthood.[4] Rebecca Felton was a staunch white supremacist, but her husband served as a surgeon during the Civil War. He survived the war and they worked on repairing the extensive damage suffered to the property after it finished.[5]

The Campaign of William Harrel Felton

William Felton ran for a seat in Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District in 1874 as an Independent Democrat. Prior to the Civil War, he and Rebecca L. Felton’s family identified as Whigs and the Feltons did not care for the Bourbon Democrats who took control of the state legislator in the early 1870s. Rebecca Felton worked as his campaign manager and he won the election. He then won the next two to serve from 1875 to 1881. He served another three from 1884 to 1890.[6]

The Rise of Rebecca L. Felton

Rebecca Felton did more than just manage her husband’s campaign. She edited his speeches and garnered him support through dozens of articles she wrote for state newspapers. She even assisted in drafting bills he introduced while in the state legislature.

Rebecca Latimer Felton’s many writings, including those in her Atlantic Journal column, allowed her to connect with a large majority of Georgians and make her name known.

The Feltons purchased a Cartersville newspaper in 1885 and she ran it for a year and a half, promoting her husband.[7] William Felton ran for another term in 1894, but lost. He died in 1909.[8] Rebecca L. Felton published a book on her experiences in 1911 entitled My Memoirs of Georgia Politics.

Rebecca Latimer Felton continued her writing after her husband’s death and influenced a statewide prohibition and the end of the convict lease system, where private companies exploited convicts for labor, in 1908. She contributed to the state university and spoke on behalf of poor white girls through the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Felton began writing for the Atlanta Journal in 1899. She wrote a semiweekly column entitled, “The Country Home,” on a multitude of various subjects for the magazine’s rural audience.[9]

White Supremacy

Rebecca Latimer Felton and her husband owned slaves before the Civil War.[10] She was also the last member of the Congress to own slaves.[11] Felton was a white supremacist and once claimed that the more money Georgia put into the education of African-Americans, the more crimes committed. At the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, she proposed an exhibit illustrating the slave period” featuring “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 a slave—not the Uncle Tom sort.” She stated that “young blacks” fighting for civil equality were “half-civilized gorillas.” While advocating for women’s suffrage, she denounced universal suffrage and argued that it would mean more rapes of white women because of their “brutal lust.”[12] She claimed, “if it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.”[13]

Senator Rebecca Latimer Felton

Senator Rebecca Latimer Felton served as the first female senator for only 24-hours.

On September 26, 1922, Georgia Senator Thomas E. Watson died and Governor Thomas Hardwick needed to appoint a replacement until they held a special election. The appointee would not actually perform any duties of a senator since the next session began after the special election. He wanted to be senator, so he appointed Rebecca Latimer Felton to the position on October 3, 1922, in order to prevent his opponent, Walter F. George, from gaining an advantage. [14] On October 7, Felton gave a speech as she received a certificate of appointment during a public ceremony in Cartersville. Governor Hardwick changed his position on women’s suffrage claiming, “it was right,” and she stated,

“The biggest part of this appointment lies in the recognition of women in the government of our country. It means, as far as I can see, there are now no limitations upon the ambitions of women. They can be elected or appointed to any office in the land. The word ’sex’ has been obliterated entirely from the Constitution.”[15]

Governor Hardwick lost in the special election on October 17, but the 17th Amendment now allowed for a senator appointed by the governor to serve until a successor was elected. So on November 20, he allowed her to present her credentials before Congress before he swore in and she took her appointed Senate seat.[16] On November 21, Congress swore Latimer Felton in as the first female Senator and the next day George took his elected position.[17]

Later Life and Death

Rebecca Felton returned to her home in Cartersville and continued writing about public affairs. In 1927, she took a brief trip to the Capitol when the statue of Alexander Stephens was added to the National Statuary Hall by Georgia.[18] Felton died on January 24, 1930, and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville. The Rose Lawn Museum honors Felton in their Cartersville collection and, in 1997, she was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement organization.[19]

References

Bibliography

Litwack, L. F. (1999). Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Office of the Historian. (2016). FELTON, Rebecca Latimer. US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives.[1]

Parker, D. B. (2003, May 14). Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930). New Georgia Encyclopedia: History & Archaeology: Late Nineteenth Century, 1877-1900.[2]

Footnotes

  1. Office of the Historian, 2016
  2. Parker, 2003
  3. Office of the Historian, 2016
  4. Parker, 2003
  5. Office of the Historian, 2016
  6. Parker, 2003
  7. Parker, 2003
  8. Office of the Historian, 2016
  9. Parker, 2003
  10. Felton, R. L. (2010). Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. United States: BCR (Bibliographical Center for Research).
  11. McKay, J. (2011). It Happened in Atlanta: Remarkable Events that Shaped History. United States: Globe Pequot Press.
  12. Litwack, 1999
  13. Office of the Historian, 2016
  14. Parker, 2003
  15. Office of the Historian, 2016
  16. Office of the Historian, 2016
  17. Parker, 2003
  18. Office of the Historian, 2016
  19. Parker, 2003

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