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first woman to sit in the U.S. Senate
Rebecca Latimer was born near Decatur, Georgia, on June 10, 1835, the daughter of Charles Latimer (a merchant and planter) and Eleanor Swift Latimer. She attended local schools and graduated from Madison Female College in 1852. She married William Harrell Felton, a physician and Methodist preacher, in 1853, and the couple settled on a farm near Cartersville.
The first two decades of the Feltons' marriage were typical for the times, with five children being born (only one survived to maturity, however). During the Civil War, William Felton served as a surgeon despite his wife's objections to secession. Following the war, they worked to restore their heavily damaged farm, while she taught school to bring in additional income.
In 1874, William Felton ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, as an Independent Democrat. As his campaign manager, Rebecca made appointments for speaking, recruited speakers, answered newspaper attacks, contracted for the printing and distribution of circulars and sample ballots, etc. After his election, she served as his secretary, in which capacity she took care of his correspondence and helped write his speeches, among other duties. William Felton served two terms in the House before being defeated for re-election in 1880, after which he and Rebecca returned to their Cartersville farm. William returned to the political arena in 1884, winning election to the Georgia House of Representatives and serving until 1890. He made an unsuccessful attempt to regain his U.S. House seat, as a Populist, in 1894, after which he gave up politics.
Rebecca Felton originally gained attention as an active participant in her husband's campaigns, but her "jump" into fame came through her writings. In 1885, she and William established the Cartersville Free Press, a weekly newspaper, and she became one of its principal columnists. She was also the writer of "The Country Home," a column that appeared in the Atlanta Journal for almost two decades (beginning in 1899). In her columns, she supported women's suffrage, Prohibition, and public education, especially vocational training for girls. She was prone to making harsh personal attacks on perceived enemies and articulated an often brutal vision of social order, including the defense of what many perceived as harsh working conditions in southern cotton mills and criticism of labor unions. She continued writing after her husband's death in 1909, including three books -- My Memoirs of Georgia Politics (1911), Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (1919), and The Romantic Story of Georgia's Women (1930).
The sudden death of U.S. Senator Thomas E. Watson on September 26, 1922 is what suddenly propelled Felton into the national spotlight. Georgia Governor Thomas Hardwick hoped to be elected to finish Watson's term, but state law at the time required him to appoint someone to fill the seat until a special election could be held. Having previously gone on the record as an opponent of women's suffrage, Hardwick thought that the appointment of a woman to what he expected to be a short tenure would help him regain favor amongst the newly franchised women. As one of the most well known women in Georgia politics at the time, Rebecca Felton seemed to be his best choice. Felton was formally appointed on October 3rd, with the Democratic primary for the special election scheduled for later that same month. Congress was not in session at the time, however, so Felton was not yet a sitting Senator.
On October 17th, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Walter George defeated Governor Hardwick in the primary, all but guaranteeing him the seat vacated by Watson's death. Felton was not a candidate in either the primary or general election, and it looked as if she would never actually take her seat in the Senate. That changed, however, when President Warren G. Harding suddenly called Congress into special session, to begin November 20, 1922, for a Ship Subsidy Bill. The 87-year-old Felton convinced Senator-elect George to allow her to present her credentials during the special session, and she was officially sworn in on November 21st. As the first woman to ever sit in that body, Felton made a brief speech in which she predicted that more women would eventually follow her into Congress, after which she formally turned her seat over to George. Her term officially ended on November 22nd, giving her the distinction of being the Senator with the shortest term of service while the chamber was in open session. She was also the oldest person to ever be sworn in as a U.S. Senator for his/her first term.
After her short but famous tenure as Senator ended, Felton kept busy as a writer and lecturer until her death, which came in Atlanta on January 24, 1930. She is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, in Cartersville.
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This page was last updated on June 19, 2017.