Who Is Rebecca Latimer Felton? The 24-Hour Georgia Senator Has A Very Complicated legacy
There has only been one female senator from Georgia in United States history, and even then, she only held the position for one day. To this very day, Rebecca Latimer Felton is the only woman to represent the state of Georgia in the U.S. Senate, but many people may not have heard of her. So, who was Felton — and why is she so important to remember as we close Women's History Month?
Born in 1835, Felton was a journalist for Atlanta Semi-Weekly Journal, but was better known for her political career, most notably as an active suffragist. She also ran her husband's, William Harrell Felton's, successful campaigns to become a member of the Georgia legislature and a U.S. Congressman. (He served in Congress from 1875 to 1881.)
Felton made her 24-hour seat on Oct. 3, 1922. Her single day as a Georgia senator was unique for a number of reasons: She was the first female Senator in the state, she was the only female Senator the state has ever seen, and she was the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate at almost 88 years old.
While Felton's story of a brief Senate stint has some inspiring aspects, it may be difficult for modern Americans to revere here. Felton was openly opposed to giving black Americans equal rights. She was also a proponent of lynching. As the Wall Street Journal noted, Felton "played a central role in having an Emory University professor fired because he had written an article opposing lynching and advocated equal justice for blacks and whites."
Moreover, behind all the significant firsts of Felton's Senate appearance, there was possibly a sneaky motive, according to the official U.S. Senate page. The then-governor, Thomas Hardwick, had resisted women's suffrage, putting him on the wrong side of history and thereby losing a lot of the newly-available woman's vote. In an attempt to appeal to female voters, Hardwick decided to make himself responsible for getting a woman in the Senate — and, of course, it was a largely-symbolic gesture.
In her first and only Senate speech, Felton called herself, "the happiest woman in the United States." She went on to giver her appointer credit, saying: "Georgia is the first state in the federal union composed of 48 states where one chivalric governor went to the front and said, 'Send that old lady there and let her look at the Senate for even a day.'"
Felton continued, addressing the president in her one speech:
I want to say further that I commend to your attention the ten million women voters who are watching this incident. It is a romantic incident senators, but it is also a historical event," she explained, "Let me say, Mr. President, that when the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be 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.
As we close Women's History month, it's important to remember Felton in totality — not only for what she meant for white suffragists, but what she meant for civil rights in the South.