Felton, Rebecca Latimer (1835–1930)
Felton, Rebecca Latimer (1835–1930)
American reformer and journalist who was the first woman seated in the U.S. Senate. Born Rebecca Ann Latimer on June 10, 1835, in DeKalb County, near Decatur, Georgia; died on June 24, 1930, in Atlanta, Georgia; oldest of three children of Charles (a farmer and businessman) and Eleanor (Swift) Latimer; attendedprivate schools in Oxford and Decatur; graduated from Madison Female College, Madison, Georgia, in 1852; married William Harrell Felton (a physician and Methodist cleric), on October 11, 1853 (died 1909); children: four sons (three of whom died before adulthood) and one daughter (who died in infancy).
Independent and competitive as a child, Rebecca Ann Felton grew up in a liberal household and received the best education then available to girls in her home state of Georgia. After graduating from Madison Female College at the head of her class, she married William Harrell Felton, a physician and Methodist cleric who later aspired to a political career. Because of poor health, William took up farming near Cartersville in northwest Georgia, where Rebecca, within a six-year period, gave birth to two sons and to a daughter who died in infancy. During the Civil War, the Feltons embraced the Confederate cause and were subjected to horrors that would color their outlook forever. Forced to flee their farm when Sherman invaded Georgia, they
sought refuge in a run-down farmhouse near Macon, where they were terrorized by Federal raiders, Confederate deserters, and freed slaves. One son died of measles in 1864 and the other of malaria a year later. Two more sons were born after the war, but only one survived to adulthood.
During the Reconstruction years, while rebuilding the family farm in Cartersville and helping her husband run a school, Felton became active in the local temperance club and the ladies' society to aid Confederate widows and orphans. She then moved on to assist her husband's political career, which included service as a congressional representative and later in the Georgia legislature. Felton served as his campaign manager and press secretary during his three successful runs for Congress (1874, 1876, and 1878), and she proved to be a formidable opponent when under political attack. She served as his secretary in Washington, and, when he was defeated in 1880 and they returned to Cartersville, she helped found and edit a local newspaper. From 1884 to 1890, when William served in the Georgia legislature, Rebecca again ran his election campaigns, drafted bills and speeches, and served as a general adviser. By the time her husband retired from politics, she had become a public figure in her own right.
For several decades, well into her 80s, Felton was a leader of several reform movements, notably those for prison reform, particularly the battle against convict leasing which allowed women and child convicts to be housed with men. She also supported women's rights and was active in Georgia's suffrage movement, which for many years was led by her sister Mary Latimer McLendon (1840–1921). With her husband, Felton defended the state university from attacks by denominational colleges and campaigned for the admission of women. It was largely through her efforts that the Georgia Training School for Girls, which provided vocational training for the state's poor white girls, was founded in Atlanta in 1915. Felton served on the board of lady managers of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) and also chaired the women's executive board of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta (1894–95).
In 1899, the Atlanta Journal, in an effort to boost circulation of its rural semi-weekly edition, hired Felton as a columnist. In a regular feature entitled "Mrs. Felton's Timely Talks," she offered advice on farming, household management, child labor laws, and the doctrine of evolution, while her views reflected the predominant bias of the region against blacks, Catholics, and Jews. Felton's writing during this period also involved several autobiographical books, including My Memoirs of Georgia Politics (1911) and Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (1919). She retired from the Journal in 1927, having won the respect and admiration of farm families throughout Georgia and the southeast.
In 1920, at age 85, Felton entered the political arena again, campaigning to elect Thomas E. Watson as U.S. senator and his fellow isolationist Thomas Hardwick as governor. When Watson died in office, Hardwick appointed Felton to fill the unexpired term, a mere gesture, since a successor would be elected before Congress reconvened. Felton, however, persuaded the elected successor, Walter F. George, to delay his appearance in the reconvened Senate, and on November 21, 1922, opening day, she took her seat on the Senate floor, the first woman ever to do so. The next day, after a brief speech, she relinquished the seat to George. Felton returned to Cartersville, where she continued to chide the press when events or people displeased her, and also worked on her final autobiography, The Romantic Story of Georgia Women (1930), a chronicle (and elaboration) of her achievements. She died at the age of 95, in Atlanta, where she had gone to attend a trustees' meeting of the Georgia Training School for Girls. She was buried in Cartersville, in a marble mausoleum she had erected near the grave of her husband.
James, Edward T., ed., Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.
Talmadge, John E. Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades, 1980.
An extensive collection of Rebecca Felton's papers are located in the University of Georgia Library.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts