October 3, 1922: Rebecca Felton becomes the First Woman United States Senator

Governor Thomas Hardwick of Georgia opposed the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. However, when Senator Tom Watson died on September 26, 1922 and a Senate seat opened up, the Governor thought a conciliatory move towards newly enfranchised Georgia women might just give him a leg up on his competition as he threw his own hat into the ring.

Congress was in recess and not scheduled to reconvene until after the election, so appointing a woman as an “olive branch” until a successor was Senator Rebecca Latimer Felton stands in front of Capitol Hill in 1922elected seemed a safe move. Hardwick approached Senator Watson’s widow; after she declined, the governor approached Rebecca Felton.

Rebecca Felton was one tough old bird. She was eighty-seven years old, and she didn’t think much of the hypocrisy of Southern men who boasted of superior Southern “chivalry” but opposed women’s rights. “Honeyed phrases are pleasant to listen to, but the sensible women of our country would prefer more substantial gifts….”

A child of the old South, she would be the last slave owner to serve in the Senate. “All I owned was invested in slaves and my people were loyal and I stood by them to the end. . . Nevertheless I am now too near the borderland of eternity to withhold my matured conscientious and honest opinion. 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. The South had to suffer, and even when our preachers were leading in prayer for victory, during the war, and black-robed mothers and wives were weeping for their dead ones, who perished on the field of battle, I had questions in my own mind as to what would be the end of it.”

Still, as a white woman in Georgia, she was more than a bit jealous of rights extended to others, but not to her. “I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all. Is that fair?”

Governor Hardwick orchestrated a local ceremony to present Rebecca Felton with her credentials as a newly appointed Senator. It was a festive occasion until the governor explained that she could not be sworn in until the Senate was in session, and Congress would not convene till after her successor had been elected. Felton fell unnaturally silent.

Encouraged by an outpouring of support from women across the country, she sought a way to present her credentials to the Senate sooner. Her supporters deluged President Warren G. Harding with letters urging him to call a special session of Congress. Even a call from Felton herself failed to move the president, but then on November 9, 1922, President Harding called an extraordinary session of Congress to handle merchant marine legislation.

Despite Governor Hardwick’s ploy of appointing a women, his opponent, Judge Walter F. George, won the special election. When the Senate reconvened on November 21, 1922, Walter George graciously allowed Felton to be sworn in first, and to take her seat for a day. At eighty-seven years old, she would be the oldest freshman Senator ever, and she knew that her time in Washington would be very brief.

The following day, as Senator-elect George waited to present his credentials, Senator Rebecca Felton, “the happiest woman in the United States,” rose to address the Senate in her maiden, and only speech. A crusty old Georgia woman had finally broken one of the oldest barriers of the Republic:

“There may be but very few women senators in the next few years,” she predicted, “but when the women of the country come in and sit with you . . . you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness.”

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