Rebecca Latimer Felton – Encyclopedia of New Georgia

Rebecca Latimer Felton, who died in 1930 at the age of ninety-four, has lived a life that is as full as it is long. A tireless writer and activist for progressive-era reforms, particularly women’s rights, she was the first woman to serve in the United States Senate.

Rebecca Ann Latimer was born June 10, 1835, daughter of Charles Latimer, a DeKalb County merchant and planter, and his wife, Eleanor Swift Latimer. When the young Latimer graduated, at the top of her class, in 1852 from Madison Female College in Madison, the opening speaker was William H. Felton, a recently widowed state legislator, physician, Methodist minister and planter of the Bartow County. A year later, the promotion major and speaker got married, and Rebecca Felton moved to her husband’s farm just north of Cartersville. Of the couple’s five children born, only one, Howard Erwin, survived infancy.

In 1874, William Felton ran for the seat of Georgia’s seventh congressional district as an Independent Democrat. He had been a Whig before the Civil War (1861-1865), as had the Latimers, and neither he nor Rebecca Felton, who was his campaign manager, cared about the so-called Bourbon Democrats who had taken control of the State in the early 1870s. William Felton won this election, then the next two, during three terms (1875-81) in the United States Congress. From 1884 to 1890 he served three more terms in the state legislature.

It’s important to start a discussion about Rebecca Felton’s career by talking about her husband for two reasons. First, she entered the public arena through her husband’s political career. She has become more than just a campaign manager. She polished her speeches and wrote dozens of newspaper articles, both signed and unsigned, on his behalf. She helped draft the bills he presented to the state legislature. In 1885 the Feltons bought a newspaper in Cartersville, which she ran for a year and a half to promote her husband. She was without a doubt his biggest and most effective supporter. William Felton’s voters sometimes boasted of having two representatives for the price of one. However, not everyone liked the arrangement. A fellow legislator, speaking from the assembly, called Felton “the she of Georgia, ”an unflattering characterization that greatly angered the husband-and-wife team.

Rebecca Latimer Felton

From the History of the Christian Women’s Temperance Movement in Georgia, by Ms. JJ Ansley

Second, until late in life, Felton herself saw her career as completely tied to that of her husband. In 1911, two years after her death, she published My Memoirs of Political Georgia, a long and tedious volume, written, according to the title page, by “Mrs. William H. Felton. The book details her husband’s political battles, exposing those who worked against him.

Perhaps more than she thought, the years spent with her husband developed her political skills and introduced her to the friends and foes who would define much of the rest of her political life. Chief among these was her long-standing animosity towards John B. Gordon, the Confederate general turned politician and businessman who she said had worked against her husband for his own selfish gain. In her albums she kept letters, newspaper clippings and other articles detailing the Felton’s battles with Gordon and others, noting them with such remarks as “consummate liar” and “lest I forget.”

Although Felton never fully overcome these personal animosities, her career after her husband’s retirement in the 1890s (around the time she turned sixty) was marked more by her own desires for reform. Through her speeches and writings, she contributed to the statewide ban and end of the convict lease system, a system of cheap labor hiring from private companies, which often maintained the condemned in inferior and even inhumane conditions. Both were achieved in 1908. She supported the state university against its opponents – colleges affiliated with the church and those who believed that limited state funds should be spent on improving public schools. below college level. She has also spoken out to the United Daughters of Confederation branches and others for vocational education opportunities for poor white girls in the state. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Felton adopted the reform with which she is most associated: female suffrage. She has become the South’s best-known and most effective champion for women’s suffrage. In 1915, writer Corra Harris, a compatriot Georgian, published a novel on women’s suffrage titled Co-citizens, which features a protagonist based loosely on Felton.

In 1899 Felton began writing for the bi-weekly edition of Atlanta Journal, an edition launched by publisher Hoke Smith to appeal to rural readers across the state. “The Country Home” was a high-profile column that included everything from tips on housekeeping to Felton’s opinions on almost everything. One historian described it as “a cross between a modern day ‘Dear Abby’ and Heloise’s Tips.”

Felton was also known for her conservative racial views. In an 1897 speech, she said the biggest problem facing women on the farm was the danger of black rapists. “If it takes a lynching to protect the dearest possession of women from the drunken and ravenous beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch a thousand a week. She condemned anyone who dared to question the racial politics of the South; when Andrew Sledd, a professor at Emory College, did just that in an article published in 1902 in the Atlantic monthly, she helped force his resignation from school.

Felton is perhaps best known today as the first woman in the United States Senate. When 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 stressed that his nominee 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.

Inauguration of Rebecca Latimer Felton
Inauguration of Rebecca Latimer Felton

Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Hardwick himself wanted to be a senator and he knew whoever he appointed would have a real advantage (as the incumbent) in the special election. So rather than give a potential opponent an advantage and be on the good side of newly emancipated Georgia voters (whom he had offended by opposing the Nineteenth Amendment), Hardwick appointed four-year-old Felton. – twenty-seven, on October 3. .

Hardwick lost the special election two weeks later to Walter F. George. When the session opened, George allowed Felton to present his credentials before claiming his seat. She was sworn in at noon on November 21. The next morning, she delivered a speech thanking the Senate for allowing her to be sworn in and noting that the women who followed her would serve with “capacity,” “integrity of purpose” and “unfailing utility.” Senator-elect George was then sworn in. Felton’s tenure had only lasted twenty-four hours.

Rebecca Felton was a complex figure: in some ways she was very progressive, an exceptional Georgian; in other ways she was truly a person of her time and place. She died on January 24, 1930 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville. The Rose Lawn Musuem in Cartersville honors the memory of Felton as well as that of Sam Jones, the well-known 19th century preacher from Bartow County.

In 1997, Felton was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.

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