On Nov. 21, 1922, the first female senator was sworn into office. Her tenure lasted for one day, at the age of 87. Her name was Rebecca Latimer Felton, and she is best remembered as a pioneering Georgia suffragette, writer and conservative advocate.

History has spent less time remembering Felton as a white supremacist and a slave owner.

In what was arguably her most famous speech in 1897, Felton advocated for the lynching of black men. “If it needs lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts — then I say lynch, a thousand a week, if necessary,” she said.

Felton’s racist depiction of predatory black men was one she held to, believing it was a key tenet to protecting the future of white women.

(Eleanor Shakespeare for The Lily; AP photo of Rebecca Latimer Felton)
(Eleanor Shakespeare for The Lily; AP photo of Rebecca Latimer Felton)

Felton was born in 1835 in rural Decatur, Ga., to a prosperous slave-owning family. She lived a privileged life and received a formal education until she was 17, an achievement that was highly unusual in that era. She was married at 18 to politician William Harrell Felton. The couple moved to Cartersville, Ga., to manage her family’s primary fortune: a plantation.

Felton appeared to disavow slavery in her autobiography, "Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth.”

“If there had been no slaves there would have been no war. To fight for the perpetuation of domestic slavery was a mistake. The time had come in the United States to wipe out this evil,” she wrote.

But Felton didn’t suddenly think slavery was evil, says Ann Chirhart, a professor of history at Indiana State University and co-editor of “Georgia Women: Their Lives, Their Times.” She instead she had decided that the toll of war on white families was too much.

In rural Georgia, “women were raised in a system that emphasized men’s protection of them,” says Chirhart. “To her, [white men] had betrayed this whole mission. She was really condemning them for that.”

“She’s not necessarily condemning them for slavery. She’s condemning them for pursuing ownership of slaves because they were pursuing wealth and not focusing on protecting and caring for their home,” says Chirhart.

Felton was hardly a one-dimensional figure. Felton’s resentment toward what she perceived as white men failing white women spurred her into public life, a bold concept for a southern, conservative woman.

As a public figure, she supported Prohibition and public education, including vocational training for poor, white Georgia girls, and fought against the state’s system of convict leasing, which provided prisoner labor to private parties.

She is often remembered for her work in Georgia’s women’s suffrage movement. Felton believed white women were subservient to white men, so she wasn’t pushing for equality. She was seeking voting rights for women, but not all women, says Chirhart. Like the national suffrage movement, Felton was indifferent to African American women’s voting rights.

Through her work as a public figure, as well as her writings, Felton became a hero to white Georgia women, leading to her eventual appointment as the nation’s first female senator.

Georgia Gov. Thomas Hardwick opposed women’s suffrage. The state had failed to ratify the 19th Amendment giving the women the vote. Feeling the backlash, Hardwick, who had to fill a vacant senate seat, appointed a woman, well aware that it was simply a token gesture before a special election took place.

“He picked a woman who would appease a lot of the women he ticked off for not supporting the 19th Amendment,” says Fred Mobley, an archivist at the DeKalb History Center. “[Felton] had herself in the middle of what was the going political outlook for the people that were in power and the political philosophies that were in power.”

Felton accepted the position, but could not be sworn in unless the Senate was in session, and Congress could not convene until after her successor had been elected. Hardwick lost the special election race to Walter F. George.

Felton convinced George to delay presenting his credentials to the Senate by a day. The senator-elect allowed Felton to be sworn in for 24 hours.

She thanked the senate on Nov. 22, 1922 for the ceremonial gesture. “When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but very few in the next few years, I pledge you that you will get ability, you will get integrity purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness.”

“She knew once you had a visual, written record and a picture of a woman as a senator. Then you could no longer say a woman could not be a senator,” says Mobley.

Today, Felton is the only female senator to come out of Georgia.

As of Nov. 21, 2017, there are 105 women in Congress: 21 in the Senate and 84 in the House of Representatives. Women make up just under 20 percent of the members of Congress.

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