Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930), a Georgia native, is best known as the first woman to hold a U.S. Senate seat but it is her speeches and writings on behalf of Progressive Era reforms, especially women’s rights, that cement her legacy.
“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. She also spoke out, to chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and others, for vocational education opportunities for poor white girls in the state. Not until the early 20th century did Felton embrace the reform with which she is most associated: woman suffrage. She became the South's best known and most effective champion of women's right to vote,” wrote David B. Parker in Felton’s New Georgia Encyclopedia entry.
The Rebecca Latimer Felton Collection, from 1851 to 1930, has recently been digitized and made available at the Digital Library of Georgia, based at the University of Georgia Libraries. The papers include correspondence, speeches, articles, and scrapbooks; all reflecting her lengthy public career as author, newspaper columnist, lecturer, as she actively pursued her interests in politics, religious issues, penal and temperance reform and women's political rights. The collection is held by the UGA Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
In 1853, Rebecca Latimer married William H. Felton, a state legislator, physician, Methodist minister, and planter. “It is important to begin a discussion of Rebecca Felton's career by talking about her husband for two reasons. First, she entered the public arena through her husband's political career,” Parker wrote.
“She became more than just a campaign manager. She polished his speeches and wrote dozens of newspaper articles, both signed and unsigned, on his behalf. She helped draft the bills that he introduced in the state legislature. In 1885 the Feltons bought a Cartersville newspaper, which she ran for a year and a half to promote her husband. She was undoubtedly his biggest and most effective supporter. William Felton's constituents sometimes bragged that they were getting two representatives for the price of one.”
Felton is perhaps best remembered today as the first woman in the U.S. Senate. When Sen. Thomas E. Watson died on Sept. 26, 1922, Gov. Thomas Hardwick appointed a replacement to serve until a special election could be held.
“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 Felton on Oct. 3.
“Hardwick lost the special election two weeks later to Walter F. George,” Parker said, noting that
in some ways Felton “was very progressive, an exceptional Georgian; in other ways, she was very much a person of her time and place,” including her conservative racial views.
In 1997 Felton was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.
Felton's New Georgia Encyclopedia entry: