Felton, Rebecca Latimer
FELTON, Rebecca Latimer
Born 10 June 1835, DeKalb County, Georgia; died 24 January 1930, Atlanta, Georgia
Also wrote under: Mrs. W. H. Felton
Daughter of Charles and Eleanor Latimer; married William H.Felton, 1853
Rebecca Latimer Felton's father, a tavern keeper and the local postmaster, believed his daughters should be as well educated as boys and helped build a school in the community. Felton graduated from the Madison Female College in 1852, and the following year married a widowed physician and Methodist minister. The first years of Felton's married life were uneventful. She devoted herself to caring for her stepdaughter and raising her own three children. During the Civil War, the Feltons were in the path of Sherman's invading army and were forced to flee to Macon, Georgia. When the war ended, they returned to Cartersville to find their home and fields destroyed. Undaunted, Felton and her husband rebuilt their property and acquired more land. To bring in money, they ran a school for young children.
In 1874 Dr. Felton entered politics as the congressional candidate of the Independent Democrats, those revolting against the conservative Bourbons, who dominated state politics. Felton was in her element in the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Because it was considered improper for a woman to participate openly in politics, Felton worked behind the scenes, writing her husband's speeches and attacking the Bourbons in newspaper articles. Felton won the election and they moved to the capital. Felton was so skillful a politician and publicist that her husband's opponents claimed the Seventh District had two representatives in Congress, both husband and wife. Dr. Felton was reelected in 1876 and 1878, but was defeated in his bid for a fourth term. In 1884 he was elected to the state legislature, where he served three terms.
After her husband's retirement from politics, Felton began a career as a reformer. She spoke out against the brutal convict lease system, both because of the institution's barbarity and because most of the contracts were held by her Bourbon enemies. A devout Methodist, she joined the Women's Christian Temperance Union and became one of its most effective speakers. She appealed to women to work to have liquor outlawed, citing the shame and brutality visited on innocent women whose men drank. She also shrewdly utilized racism by raising the spectre of drunken black men lusting after white women. Her efforts were rewarded in 1908 when Georgia passed statewide prohibition. Later, Felton campaigned for woman suffrage and against the League of Nations.
Felton's literary career began while her husband was in politics. She enjoyed her verbal duels with the Bourbon leadership, playing a sort of hit-and-run game by attacking them unmercifully and then hiding behind her dignity as a woman when they responded in kind. In 1885 she and Dr. Felton purchased the Cartersville Free Press as a campaign organ. They renamed it the Courant, and Felton ran it singlehandedly for over a year. For 28 years she wrote a column for the Atlanta Journal, offering household hints and advice on personal problems and etiquette, and publicizing her reforms.
Felton had a long memory and never forgave her enemies. Her first book, My Memoirs of Georgia Politics (1911), pays tribute to Dr. Felton and the Independents and denounces the Bourbons, most of whom had died years ago. While her accusations of fraud and corruption were true, they were presented in a partisan manner and with little attempt to check the accuracy of the sources. Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (1919) is primarily a record of her middle years and her husband's political campaigns. The Romantic Story of Georgia's Women (1930) offers brief biographies of Revolutionary War heroines and contemporary reformers and an extended autobiography of herself.
Felton achieved a lifelong dream to hold political office herself in 1922, when she was appointed to fill the brief term of the late Senator Thomas E. Watson. By special arrangement with Walter George, Watson's elected successor, Felton was allowed to appear on the floor of the Senate, present her credentials, and be sworn in. The next day, she made a brief speech and retired, allowing George to take his seat. She returned to Georgia, the first woman U.S. senator, if only for a day.
Felton should be remembered more for what she did than for her writing. In many ways, she was the prototype for such modern women activists as Bella Abzug. Though forced by the conventions of the postwar South to use her literary talents in traditional areas, she managed to extend these conventions to include politics and social reforms. If Felton's autobiographical writings were somewhat self-serving, this may be forgiven, for she had much of which to be proud.
On the Subjugation of Women and the Enfranchisement of Women (1915).
Talmadge, J. E., Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades (1960). Thompson, C. M., Reconstruction in Georgia; Economic, Social, Political 1865-1872 (1915). Vann Woodward, C., Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951).
Georgia Historical Quarterly (March 1946, June 1946). Georgia Review (1955).
—JANET E. KAUFMAN