Distinguished Women of Past and Present


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Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton

From: United States: Georgia
Fields: Government and Politics
Key Words/Phrases: the first woman U.S. Senator
Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, was born June 10, 1835 in Decatur, Georgia, U.S.A. In 1852 she graduated first in her class from Madison Female College in Madison, Georgia. The following year she married the commencement speaker, Dr. William Harrell Felton, a physician and a Methodist clergyman. They bought a farm near Cartersville, Georgia, where she gave birth to five children. Only one of their children survived to adulthood.

During the Civil War, the Feltons moved several times to get out of the way of the Sherman's army, which had a policy of not sparing the civilian population in its path. Deprivations suffered during the Civil War may have been responsible for the deaths of two of their children.

After the war, the Feltons returned to their razed farm, which they rebuilt. They also got involved in politics. In 1874, Dr. Felton ran for and won a seat in the U.S. Congress while Mrs. Felton was his campaign manager, and strategist. She wrote his speaches and press releases. After losing his seat in the U.S.Congress, Dr. Felton was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1884. Rebecca Felton continued writing his speaches and drafting legislation.

In addition, she was editor of the newspaper they owned, gave lectures supporting education for women, women's suffrage (the right to vote) and prison reform. She opposed the practice of leasing convicts for work. She was also a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. She was an outspoken critic of Catholics, Jews, Negroes, evolution and child labor laws. Due to her activism, she became the most visible woman leader in her state, an even greater power than her husband, according to newspaper headlines.

In 1910, at age seventy-four, she started writing a column for the Atlanta Journal which continued until her death twenty years later. In 1912, she was a delegate to the newly-formed Progressive Party's (the Bull Moose Party) national convention. The party nominated former president Theodore Roosevelt as its presidential candidate, but the election was won by Woodrow Wilson. Felton continued working to support election of friends who shared her isolationist and increasingly racist views.

When one of Georgia's U.S. senators, Thomas E. Watson, for whom Rebecca Felton had campaigned, died in office in 1922, Governor Thomas Hardwick appointed Felton to replace him. The appointment came on October 30, when Congress had already adjourned for the fall elections, so Felton had no opportunity to serve. When the new session started, Senator-elect Walter George, who was to replace her, agreed to claim his seat a day late, so Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton was sworn in on November 21, 1927 as the first female U.S. senator. She gave a short speech and then resigned. She was eighty-seven years old.

Rebecca Felton died January 24, 1930 in Atlanta, Georgia at the age of ninety-four.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1996.

1. The Book of Women's Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women 2. American Women's History by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994


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