About Rebecca Ann Felton (Latimer)
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. She 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 one day, the shortest serving Senator in U.S. history. At 87 years old, 9 months and 22 days, she was also the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate. As of 2010, she is also the only woman to have served as a Senator from Georgia. She was a prominent society woman and advocate for prison reform, women's suffrage and educational modernization, and one of the few prominent women who spoke in favor of lynching.
Political views and actions
Felton was a white supremacist. She claimed, for instance, that the more money that Georgia spent on black education, the more crimes blacks committed. 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."
Felton considered "young blacks" who sought equal treatment "half-civilized gorillas," and ascribed to them a "brutal lust" for white women. While seeking suffrage for women, she decried voting rights for blacks, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.
In 1899, after 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, but had not committed the rape of the white woman whites accused him of—and divided and sold 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.
Felton also advocated the lynching of black men more generally, saying that such was "elysian" compared to the rape of white women. On at least one occasion, she stated that white Southerners should "lynch a thousand [black men] a week if it becomes necessary" to "protect woman's dearest possession."
Women's suffrage movement
A respected leader in the women's suffrage movement 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 forty five minutes, but demanded Felton stop speaking after the alloted half hour. Felton ignored him and spoke for an extra fifteen minutes, at one point making fun of Rutherford and implicitly accusing her of hypocrisy. However, the Georgia legislative committee did not pass the debated women's suffrage bill. Georgia was later the first state to reject the Nineteenth Amendment when it was proposed in 1919, and unlike most states in the Union, Georgia did not allow women to vote in the 1920 presidential election.
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 women's suffrage longer than other regions of the U.S. 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..."
In 1922, Governor Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate, when Senator Thomas E. Watson died prematurely. 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 to serve as Senator on October 3, 1922.
Congress was not expected to reconvene until after the election, so the chances were slim that Felton would be formally sworn in as Senator. 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, 1922, George allowed Felton to be officially sworn in. This was due in part to persuasion by Felton and a supportive campaign launched by the women of Georgia. Felton thus became the first woman seated in the Senate, and served until George took office on November 22, 1922, one day later.
Her tenure was the shortest for any Senator in history. She was also the last former slaveowner to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Felton was engaged as a writer and lecturer and resided in Cartersville, Georgia. She died in Atlanta, Georgia in 1930. She was interred in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville.
"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.” Nov. 7, 1922
"When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but 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." – Address to the Senate, November 21, 1922
"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." August 11, 1897
"Savage tribes used physical force to manage their women. The club and the lash were their only arguments. Moslem fanatics go a step further in saying women have no souls" – Why I Am a Suffragist? essay, dated May 14. 1915
"This women's movement is a great movement of the sexes toward each other, with common ideals as to government, as well as common ideals in domestic life, where fully developed manhood must seek and find its real mate in the mother of his children, as well as the solace of his home." – Why I Am a Suffragist?
"I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all. Is that fair?"
On Slavery: "There were abuses, many of them. I do not pretend to defend these abuses. There were kind masters and cruel masters. There were violations of the moral law that made mulattoes as common as blackberries. In this one particular slavery doomed itself. When white men were willing to put their own offspring in the kitchen and corn field and allowed them to be sold into bondage as slaves and degraded as another man's slave, the retribution of wrath was hanging over this country and the South paid penance in four bloody years of war." – from her 1919 autobiography Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth
"There was never a more loyal woman in the South after we were forced by our political leaders to go to battle to defend our rights in ownership of African slaves, but they called it "State's Rights," and all I owned was invested in slaves and my people were loyal and I stood by them to the end. Like General Lee I could not fight against my kindred in a struggle that meant life or death to them. Nevertheless I am now too near the borderland of eternity to withhold my matured conscientious and honest opinion. If there had been no slaves there would have been no war. To fight for the perpetuation of domestic slavery was a mistake. The time had come in the United States to wipe out this evil. The South had to suffer, and even when our preachers were leading in prayer for victory, during the war, and black-robed mothers and wives were weeping for their dead ones, who perished on the field of battle, I had questions in my own mind as to what would be the end of it." – from Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth.