“Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the First Female US Senator”
November 27, 2017
From the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to the inauguration of the 45th president, it is undeniable that the realm of politics in the United States is dominated by males. Women have never been widely recognized in the political field, and Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton is no exception. Born in Decatur, Georgia, Felton holds the noble title of the first female to serve in the United States senate, although she only served for a day. Women are making heavy strides in the political world, yet we still are not held on the same pedestal as men, which is an extreme disappointment. Rebecca Ann Latimer has not been widely commemorated, not because she is a woman, but because everyone has become so comfortable with a patriarchal society, that no one feels that it is necessary to celebrate women, especially women of power.
Born to a merchant and a planter in 1835, Felton grew up with a passion to learn. She graduated top of her class from Madison Colligate Institute and Methodist Female College in 1852, which was extremely significant during this time, considering it was not common for women to go to college. Shortly after graduating, she changed her name from Rebecca Latimer to Rebecca Felton, seeing as she married a man named William H. Felton in 1853. To give a bit of history before the discussion of how Felton came to be the first woman to serve in the United States senate, here is more background on her life before politics. William Felton served as a Civil War surgeon while Rebecca Felton was a school teacher. After the Civil War, William Felton ran for the Seventh Congressional District seat from Georgia as an Independent
Democrat. He won the election, and ended up serving three terms in Congress from 1875 to 1881.
The reason William Felton’s career is being discussed is because he had a major role in Rebecca Felton becoming a member of the senate. During Mr. Felton’s political career, Mrs. Felton worked alongside him through everything. She worked as his campaign manager, which entailed “making appointments for speaking, recruiting speakers, answering newspaper attacks, contracting for the printing and distribution of circulars and sample ballots, and more than all, keeping a brave face to the foe and a smiling face to the almost exhausted candidate” (Felton). While working as her husband’s campaign manager, Felton was able to get an inside look at politics. She was able to gain a bigger platform through her husband, and because he had a seat in Congress she was able to deliver her agenda to men of power.
Felton being able to work alongside her husband made a huge difference in how she was treated in the political field. Men were clearly held at the highest levels of power, so the fact that they saw Felton as an equal was considered groundbreaking at the time. The way Felton came into office was a bit unconventional. In 1922, Senator Thomas E. Watson died while in office, so Governor Thomas Hardwick had to appoint a replacement until the next special election could be held. At the time of Watson’s death, Congress was not in secession, therefore Hardwick made it known that the person who filled this position would not actually serve in Congress. At this time, Hardwick was also running for senator, so in efforts to try to win the women’s vote, Hardwick appointed Rebecca Ann Felton. Felton was sworn in on November 21, 1922. Sadly, the special election was held, and Hardwick ended up losing to Walter F. George, who before taking his seat allowed Felton to present her list of credentials such as women’s suffrage, the modernization of
education, and prison reforms. Although she was able to present in front of Congress, the special election made it so that she was only in office for 24 hours.
As stated before, Felton brought up the issues of women’s suffrage and the modernization of education when she had to opportunity to speak to Congress. This is the time of the Progressive Era, which was basically the start of feminism. Women were coming together to embrace and empower themselves, without feeling any shame. In 1897, Felton gave a speech at the Georgia Agricultural Society entitled “Woman on the Farm”. In this speech, she discussed the endless work women put into the agricultural industry, but they get little to no pay. She stated that a woman’s contribution to a farm is like a sponge. She also stated “-nation absorb and appropriate to themselves . . . farming and the general agriculture of the Union” (Whites 168). Women took care of the farm animals and agriculture, yet they get no recognition for the work they do. Felton made it known that this was an injustice to women all over the agricultural south, and women took this into consideration and started to speak out.
Felton went to an all girl’s college, which was normal at the time, but later in life, she pushed to have mixed gendered school so that males and females could have the same education for the same price. Felton knew that men and women held the same academic potential, yet women were not given the same learning opportunities as men. Alongside that, she fought to get more funding for public colleges in Georgia because she found that church affiliated schools were receiving more government funding. Felton found that if public schools were funded through property taxes, then they would be able to afford the same luxuries as church affiliated schools. By speaking for improved funding in colleges and public primary schools, she was able to get the attention of not only college students, but also parents who wanted the best education for their children. This helped Felton to gain more followers in her fight to political freedom.
The fight for equal pay in the work place was also a controversial topic that Felton fought heavily on. She spoke so heavily on the topic that it is rumored that the book The Co-Citizens written by Corra Mae Harris was about Felton and her fight for women’s suffrage. By speaking out against the injustices presented to women, Felton was able to inspire women everywhere to speak out for what they believe in. This loud and proud voice has carried on from generation to generation, and to this day, women are speaking out to the patriarchal world that is trying to bring them down.
Rebecca Felton does not have a single plaque, statue, or poster in Atlanta that recognizes her hard work. The reason for this may be due to the fact that women are not taken seriously in the political world. Take Hillary Clinton for instance. Hillary Clinton ran for president in the 2016 election, and from the time she announced that she was running until the time she lost against Donald Trump, she was constantly mocked and made a fool of by the media, although not as much as her opponent. Often times, women are associated with their husbands, and Hillary Clinton was no exception. The Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski incident was often used to shame Hillary Clinton throughout her campaign, even though the situation had nothing to do with her. This proves that no matter how hard a woman works to overcome obstacles she may face in the political world, she will never be adequate enough, which is extremely unfortunate considering how much women have to offer.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, as of today, women only take up 19.6% of the 535 seats in Congress. In the U.S. Senate, women only take up 21% of the 100 seats. The disproportionate ratio remains stagnant when it comes to the State Senate, The U.S. Supreme Court, and the U.S. State House/Assembly. Why is every branch of government dominated by men? It seems as though America cannot steer clear of the male agenda. If women
make up 50.8% of the United States population, why do we not make up half of the government? This is exactly why Felton fought to have political power. The voice that speaks for women is not a man, and she embodied the feminist movement that is still going on to this day. Women are still fighting for simple things like equal pay for equal work and abortion rights, and Felton gave women the power to speak out and protest these injustices.
In conclusion, Rebecca Latimer Felton shaped feminism into what it is today. She was the first woman to serve in the United States senate. Even though she was only in office for 24 hours, the fact that she had a seat in the first place was extremely significant to the feminist movement. Felton brought education, women’s suffrage, and the convict lease system to light when she had the opportunity to do so. By using her platform to bring these issues to light, it proves how forward-thinking Felton was, and how she always had everyone’s best interest at heart. Felton helped start the feminist revolution, and improved the standards of how women were viewed in politics. She opened doors for other women to run for positions of high power, and provided confidence for people to speak out for what they believe in. Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton deserves recognition in the city of Atlanta because she fought for what she believed in and kept her moral integrity while doing so.
Courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office. “FELTON, Rebecca Latimer, (1835-1930).” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Web.
Felton, Rebecca Latimer. Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth: Also Addresses before Georgia Legislature Woman’s Clubs, Women’s Organizations and Other Noted Occasions. Printed by Index Print. Co., 1919.
McDaniel , Bethany. “Women’s History Month: Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930).”Georgia.gov, GeorgiaGov, 19 Apr. 2016
Parker, David B. “Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 19 July 2017. Web. 08 November 2017.
Whites, LeeAnn. The Georgia Historical Quarerly. Vol. 76, No. 2, “The Diversity of Southern Gender and Race: Women in Georgia and the South (Summer 1992), pp. 354-372