Rebecca Latimer Felton, in her customary way, saw right through the political machinations that led to her officially becoming the first woman to serve in the United States Senate.
When Georgia Senator Thomas E. Watson died on September 26, 1922, Governor Thomas Hardwick appointed a replacement to serve until a special election could be held. Hardwick noted that his appointee would not actually “serve” because Congress was not in session when Watson died, and the next session would not begin until after the special election.
Hardwick himself wanted to be a senator, and he knew that the person he appointed would have a real advantage (as incumbent) in the special election. So rather than give an edge to a potential opponent, and to get on the good side of Georgia’s newly enfranchised women voters (whom he had offended by opposing the Nineteenth Amendment), Hardwick appointed the eighty-seven-year-old Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930) on October 3. To this day she holds the record for the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate.
Hardwick lost the special election two weeks later to Walter F. George. When the session opened George allowed Felton to present her credentials before he claimed his seat so that she might make history. She was sworn in at noon on November 21.
In one sense it was a meaningless, perhaps even condescending parody; Felton herself called it a “joke.” But it acknowledged her years of political activism and set the stage for women to become serious participants in the political process. Minutes after being sworn in, Felton rose to address her temporary colleagues: “Mr. President, the women of this country are going to come and sit here. There may not be very many the next few years, but in time they will come. When they do I pledge that this body will get ability, integrity and unstinted usefulness.”
The next day Senator-elect George was sworn in. Felton’s term had lasted for just twenty-four hours.
Rebecca Latimer Felton is worthy of our attention for far more than this passing episode in her long life. A writer, lecturer and reformer who had a special interest in agricultural and women’s issues, she did not accept the popular belief during that time that a woman’s proper role was a housewife and instead had an active role outside the home.
As a columnist for the Atlanta Journal for twenty-eight years, Felton contributed various articles under the titles “Mrs. Felton’s Timely Talks” and “The Country Home,” their format being a cross between a modern “Dear Abby” and “Hints from Heloise.”
Late in her life, Felton campaigned tirelessly for Progressive Era reforms. Through speeches and her writings, she helped to effect statewide prohibition and to bring an end to the convict lease system, a system of leasing cheap labor to private companies, which often maintained the convicts in substandard and even inhumane conditions. Both were achieved in 1908.
She supported the state university against its opponents—the church-affiliated colleges and those who felt that the state’s limited funds should be directed toward improving public schools below the college level. In 1922 Felton received an honorary doctorate from the University of Georgia.
She also spoke out for vocational education opportunities for poor white girls in the state. Not until the early twentieth century did Felton embrace the reform with which she is most associated: women’s suffrage. She became the South’s best known and most effective champion of women’s right to vote. Hence the symbolic importance to Georgia’s women voters of her Senate seat appointment.
Felton published her Memoirs of Georgia Politics in 1911, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth in 1919, and The Romantic Story of Georgia Women in 1930, shortly before her death. In her preface to Country Life in Georgia… she stated: “[The readers of Georgia’s newspapers] write to me and touch my heart, and some of them say further – ‘You have a large following in the State of Georgia who are devoted to you, especially among the rural citizens, the plain people of the State. They always feel assured you will state facts and furnish proof if your statements should be questioned.’”