November 21 – First Woman in U.S. Senate!

Posted on November 21, 2015

Hattie Caraway
A few years ago, I featured “the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate,” Hattie Caraway, who became “the first” in 1932.

Today's historical anniversary is the first woman in the U.S. Senate, Rebecca Latimer Felton, who became “the first” in 1922.

Are you confused?

Or did you notice that I specifically said “elected to the U.S. Senate” for Caraway, and just “in the U.S. Senate” for Felton?

Rebecca Latimer
You see, Felton never ran for election and was never chosen by voters. Instead, she was appointed by the then-Governor Hardwick of Georgia to fill a seat when one of Georgia's two senators suddenly and unexpectedly died.

Governor Hardwick might have meant to reward Felton for all her hard work in politics and on important issues...Or he might just have chosen Felton figuring that (1) she wouldn't run against him when the election for that senate seat occurred, and (2) many women would want to vote for him since he had honored a woman with the appointment.

If the Hardwick appointed Felton mostly to secure the senate seat for himself, it didn't work—he was defeated in the 1922 election and in the 1924 election.

However, Hardwick did end up with a piece of history – according to Wikipedia, “one of Hardwick's most notable actions as governor of Georgia” was appointing Felton to the temporary senate seat! 

Actually, this was one of those “in-name only” things that was more about honor than a true chance to make laws, because Felton only served in the U.S. Senate for one day. When Felton was appointed to the temporary seat, on October 3, 1922, Congress wasn't in session. Soon the special election to permanently fill the seat was held, and a man named Walter George was elected.

When the Senate reconvened on this date in 1922, George didn't insist on taking the oath and the seat. Instead, he bowed to the campaign by the women of Georgia to allow Felton to be sworn in and to serve – for that one day! The next day, George was sworn in.

Okay, only a senator for a day, but...

...It turns out, Rebecca Latimer Felton was pretty rad in some ways but really, really bad in other ways! She was a writer, lecturer, and reformer as well as a politician. She ran her husband's campaigns for seats in the U.S. and Georgia Houses of Representatives. She spoke about and worked for prison reform, women's rights, and modernizing education. She worked toward women getting the vote and for equal pay for equal work.

And that's all great and wonderful. But...

Felton was terribly, terribly racist. She owned slaves before the Civil War, and she believed that white people are better than black people! (Gulp! Obviously, she was wrong!) And here's the worst bit: she spoke out in favor of lynching black people! Yike-es-s!

Notice that this historical plaque makes no mention
of Felton's troubling racial views!
I imagine that Felton's level of racism was not unusual in white Georgians in the early 20th Century, but knowing that doesn't make my skin crawl any less when I read what Felton believed and said and did. However, we can perhaps focus on the good things she said and believed...

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