A century ago, on November 21, 1922, suffragists flocked to the Senate Chamber to watch 87-year-old Rebecca Latimer Felton become the country’s first woman senator. “The grand old woman from Georgia,” as newspapers dubbed her, had spent half her life fighting for women’s rights in her home state. Now grayed and bent, she raised her right hand and swore to uphold and defend the Constitution, prompting a roar of applause from the galleries.
The day marked a historic first for American women. But it’s complicated by Felton’s record as an outspoken white supremacist and the last member of Congress to have enslaved people. Not only did she believe Black people were inferior, but she also advocated lynching Black men accused of raping white women—“a thousand times a week if necessary,” as she said in an infamous 1897 speech.
This aspect of Felton’s legacy—along with the fact she served just 22 hours and 25 minutes, never casting a congressional vote—has led some modern observers to overlook her story. But Crystal Feimster, a historian at Yale University and the author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, says, “We can’t relegate her to the dustbin of history. We have to understand who the first woman senator was, because if we understand the context of when she lived, we’re not surprised that she was a woman who advocated mob violence.”
From the plantation to the political arena
Born Rebecca Latimer near Decatur, Georgia, in 1835, Felton grew up on a 725-acre plantation replete with colonial-style white columns. Her family was wealthy and enslaved numerous people. At age 18, she married William Harrell Felton, a doctor who had just served a term in the Georgia legislature. They moved to a plantation outside Cartersville, where Felton busied herself with “the care of my babies” and “a considerable number of slaves,” according to her 1919 memoir.
Plantation mistresses like Felton enjoyed privileged lives compared to other Southern women of the era. Nevertheless, Felton later likened their experiences to those of “frail, sheltered plants,” barred from business and politics and kept as mere “adornments for their husbands.” The only right afforded to such women was the right to protection, but even that could be revoked if a wife failed to obey her husband.
The Civil War upturned this social order, breaking “like a thunderclap from an almost clear sky,” wrote Felton in her memoir. After Georgia seceded from the United States in 1861, the Feltons did all they could to support Confederate troops, caring for the wounded, growing corn for the army, and even tearing up their clothing and carpets to make uniforms and blankets. As the fighting closed in, the family fled to a shack in a pine forest outside Macon. By the Civil War’s end, the Feltons had endured a raid by Union troops, lost their two young sons to disease and spent six months in a refugee camp in southern Georgia. When they finally returned to Cartersville in August 1865, they found “desolation and destruction” everywhere, along with “bitter, grinding poverty.”
Felton blamed elite white men for the violence (including sexual violence) and economic hardships that white women faced during and after the war. According to historian LeeAnn Whites, Felton believed upper-class women had kept their end of the antebellum gender bargain by minding their place in society, while their husbands had broken theirs.
By refusing to compromise on slavery and engineering secession, these men had triggered “a series of events that would forever undermine their ability to offer ‘protection’ to their dependents,” writes Whites in Gender Matters: Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Making of the New South. As a result, elite women were exposed to “forces that had long molded the lives of most Southern women”—a change in fortune that Felton was eager to reverse.
After the war, the Feltons rebuilt their lives in Cartersville. Beginning in 1874, William made three successful bids for Congress as an independent Democrat, representing a Georgia district’s small farmers and businessmen. Felton managed each campaign and served as William’s secretary in Washington—a job that required answering letters, editing speeches and even helping draft legislation. After William won his third campaign, one newspaper announced, “Mrs. Felton and Doctor Re-elected.”
William’s political opponents attacked his wife’s involvement. After she appeared at an 1876 rally, an editor dubbed her attendance a “disgusting spectacle.” Her promotion of a prison reform bill in 1887 caused one legislator to christen her “the political ‘She’ of Georgia”—a reference to the sorceress-queen who dominates men in H. Rider Haggard’s 1886 novel She. Misogyny haunted her even in death: In his 1960 biography of Felton, historian John E. Talmadge described her as a “belligerent feminist,” though he admitted he wouldn’t dare write a word about her if she were still living.
Felton described herself as a “sharpshooter in woman’s form” who wielded a pen as her weapon. From the 1870s on, her letters and editorials appeared in multiple Georgia newspapers, earning a readership so faithful that one Floridian fan named his boat after her. In the late 1870s, she and her husband founded the Cartersville Free Press, which Felton edited for a year. A dedicated polemicist, she took to print any time someone crossed her, calling one Methodist minister who criticized her later pro-lynching views a “slick-haired, slick-tongued, Pecksniffian blatherskite.”
Her political apprenticeship complete, Felton began outshining her husband in the 1880s, after he lost his reelection bid in the House and the couple returned to northwest Georgia. She continued serving as his aide in the Georgia General Assembly but also joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and began aggressively advocating for Prohibition and other reforms intended to protect women and girls.
Initially, that group included Black women and girls, writes Feimster in Southern Horrors. Felton was incensed by the inhumane conditions of Georgia’s convict leasing system, which saw state penitentiary prisoners leased out to private citizens as laborers. The program mainly affected African American inmates, including Black women who were forced to bear the children of their white guards. With the WCTU’s blessing and her husband’s support, Felton petitioned the legislature to end convict leasing, beginning a more than 20-year battle that culminated in the system’s abolishment in 1908.
Still, Feimster says it’s a mistake to think Felton cared about the welfare of Black Americans. Throughout her career, Felton’s primary interest was getting Southern white men to live up to their duties to Southern white women, whom she called “the coming mothers of the majority of the Anglo-Saxon race.” These duties included not raping Black women on the side and contributing to miscegenation. “However she’s thinking about justice and what is right, she’s advocating around her own racial and class and gender identity,” Feimster explains.
Through her writing and public speaking, Felton pushed many other social, economic and educational reforms that benefited white women. But she presented them through a racialized lens. “[Felton] understood that if she was going to make an argument for poor white women, she had to mobilize the discourse of race to be a part of those conversations,” Feimster says. “She believed white women should have these protections, and she knew that by using racist, white supremacist ideology, she could make those arguments. Otherwise, she would just have to shut up.”
This was nothing compared to what came next. When persuading white men to step up didn’t work, Felton began ferociously attacking Black men—a move that shot her into the national spotlight.
Felton’s arrival on the national stage
The catalyst for Felton’s fame was a speech she delivered about the problems of poor farm women on August 11, 1897. While discussing white men’s failures to protect white women in front of the Georgia Agricultural Society, Felton mentioned the previous week’s lynchings of three Black men accused of rape. At the time, the racist stereotype that African American men were assaulting white women was being used to justify lynchings across the South, despite Ida B. Wells’ groundbreaking journalism showing that less than one-third of Black lynching victims were actually accused of rape.
Felton blamed the lynchings on Democratic politicians who plied Black men with liquor at the polls, as well as on the failure of religion and the courts to prevent crime and deliver justice. If white men couldn’t “protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts,” Felton said, “then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.”
Feimster argues that Felton wasn’t actually promoting lynching but rather highlighting the depths to which white Southern society had fallen—a point the future senator made in an August 20 letter to the Atlanta Constitution, which stated, “Any fair, candid reasoner would clearly infer that I was urging a reform in our criminal laws … to make certain that all crime would be legally punished.”
Whatever her intentions, Georgia’s newspapers recognized Felton’s words for the 19th-century form of clickbait they were. The speech soon spread “like fire in dead grass all over the United States,” Felton later wrote. The Northern press was horrified by her promotion of mob violence.
Bloodshed followed. In Wilmington, North Carolina, the African American newspaper the Daily Record published a rebuttal of Felton’s speech that angered white readers so much they staged a deadly insurrection against the city’s mostly Black leadership. Estimates of the death toll range from about 60 to 300.
As the consequences of her speech spun beyond her control, Felton readily embraced the virulent caricature that had been made of her, telling the Morning News about an “unwritten [Georgia] law” that Black rapists should die “without clergy, judge or jury.”
“Felton makes the choice because she wants to be a political player,” Feimster says. “She wants to be engaged in what we might think about as high politics. She understands the rules of the game.”
Abolition and suffrage
While Felton promoted lynching to reel in Southern white men, Northern white suffragists were making their own political calculations to reel in Southern white women like Felton. In the early 19th century, the suffrage movement had been entwined with abolitionism. But the alliance splintered after the Civil War, when the 15th Amendment extended voting rights to Black men but not to women. White suffragists began courting white supremacists instead.
They said, “There are more white women than there are [Black people], so you know—wink wink—we’ll vote with you guys, trust us,” explains historian Sally Roesch Wagner, editor of the 2019 anthology The Women’s Suffrage Movement.
In 1890, white suffragists united under the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which strategically embraced white supremacy as organizational policy. The group adopted a states’ rights approach to suffrage, allowing chapters like the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association to exclude Black women. Members advocated that only educated women be given the vote, thus excluding many formerly enslaved individuals, and held up women’s suffrage as a way of maintaining white power. Ignored by the mainstream suffrage movement, some Black suffragists formed separate organizations, like the National Association of Colored Women and the Chicago-based Alpha Suffrage Club.
Frustrating as this history is, it’s important to remember the context in which women like Felton lived, says Ellen Carol DuBois, author of Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote. White supremacy was “the ocean they swam in,” she adds. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson screened The Birth of a Nation, a silent film valorizing the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House. While it may have been possible to transcend the zeitgeist, “it would not [have been] a road to political power,” DuBois says.
Yet suffragists still had agency. Getting the vote might have taken longer if feminists hadn’t pandered to white supremacy, but doing so wasn’t their only option, Wagner argues.
Felton’s views on race were “the views of the South—often the dogmatic views of its rural areas” where she lived, according to Talmadge. But it’s also true that Felton, like many of Georgia’s politicians who promoted mob violence, actively shaped her environment. She didn’t simply submit to white supremacy. She championed it.
“We can say that Felton was a product of her time, but that would be the easy thing to say,” Feimster explains. “That she was an actor, that she contributed and helped define the era in which she lived—that’s the way we have to think about her. Because we know that white supremacy is not a given; it has to be maintained. And she was invested in that.”
Felton’s views on lynching
Between 1882 and 1930, an explosion of racial violence unfolded across the American South, with more than 450 Black people lynched in Georgia alone. Victims included Sam Hose, whose lynching Felton personally sanctioned in 1899. Before Hose was taken captive, tortured and burned alive near Atlanta, Felton told the Atlanta Constitution that he “may as well get ready to die.”
Felton’s pro-lynching crusade fueled her personal power, but it didn’t help her achieve much political or economic power for white women, Feimster says. Though a statewide prohibition on alcohol passed in 1907, various other reform measures that Felton and other women advocated, including raising the age of sexual consent from 10 to 14, all “went to the wall,” Felton complained. “Not a single question was given a final vote in the [state] legislature.”
Incensed by white men’s perceived refusal to protect white women, Felton began supporting the suffrage movement in 1908 and by 1914 was arguing for the vote in front of the Georgia legislature. To Felton, writes Whites in Gender Matters, “The issue of woman suffrage offered Southern men one last opportunity to redress the failure of their fathers and grandfathers by empowering their wives and daughters to represent directly the interests of domesticity.”
As she refocused her attack on white men, Felton’s views on lynching changed, Feimster notes. Though she continued to cite race-based arguments for suffrage, she stopped cheering on the lynchings of Black men. In 1920, Felton even expressed public outrage that the lynchings of Black men and the rapes of Black women in her community went mostly unpunished. “More than 20 years have come and gone since that speech at Tybee,” she wrote in a letter to the Atlanta Constitution. “Painful it is to me that I now say to you … that our courts will not deal out justice, that our judges pussyfoot around these lynching atrocities.”
Pondering this remarkable shift, Feimster writes in her book that “the race riots of 1919, the increase in Klan violence and the upsurge of lynchings in Georgia gave Felton pause.” The Georgia WCTU and Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs had also officially opposed lynching in 1917. “By the end, they understood it was bad for the South,” Feimster says. “When you see them doing that work, it’s not necessarily about protecting Black people from lynching but about protecting the image that white people are superior. And if white people are superior, then they don’t engage in mob violence. They engage in a civilized rule of law.”
The first woman senator
In 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, prohibiting voting rights from being denied “on account of sex.” Georgia refused to ratify the amendment, but it became law anyway in August 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to vote in its favor. Georgia was among a small number of states that barred women from voting in the 1920 election, as the amendment took effect after local voter registration and poll tax deadlines had passed. Exasperated, Felton declared Georgia’s legislators to be “the most uncompromising woman-haters in the known world.”
However these male lawmakers felt about women, they soon realized they needed to court the new voters’ favor. As Liette Gidlow, a historian at Wayne State University and the author of The Big Vote: Gender, Consumer Culture and the Politics of Exclusion, 1890s-1920s, explains, “In the early 1920s, they didn’t know what new women voters would do or if they’d vote as a bloc, so many male politicians made these moves to recognize women’s suffrage, whether or not they had supported it beforehand.”
Thus the first state to reject the 19th Amendment also appointed Felton the country’s first woman senator in 1922. The move was masterminded by Governor Thomas Hardwick, who had recently lost his reelection bid. When Senator Tom Watson died suddenly that September, Hardwick decided to run for his seat in the upcoming special election—but he needed someone to fill the vacancy until then. The outgoing governor wagered that a woman wouldn’t challenge him in the race and that appointing one would improve his popularity among women voters.
“[Felton] was a political strategist,” says Feimster. “She was known by presidents. Her husband had been a senator, state [legislator] and in D.C. She had this long genealogy of being a real political player, so [when we] think about what was at stake for Southern political leaders to appoint her when they knew she wasn’t going to be in office but a day, it was an easy give.”
Some newspapers dismissed Felton’s appointment for the empty gesture that it was, as an election would occur before Congress reconvened and she could be sworn in. Black Americans who remembered Felton’s pro-lynching days were stunned. But Felton endorsed Hardwick and assured him that Georgia’s women would “reward [him] at the ballot box.” As it turned out, Hardwick lost to Walter F. George. Even so, suffragists across the country fought to see Felton seated, petitioning President Warren Harding to reconvene Congress early. Harding initially refused, then suddenly called an early session to pass a ship subsidy bill. Senator-elect George agreed to let Felton take the oath before him and briefly hold office if no other senators objected.
Felton entered the Senate Chamber on November 20 on the arm of Hoke Smith, the former Georgia governor who both ended convict leasing and disenfranchised Black men in 1908. Draped in black silk and lace, she blew a kiss to the women filling the gallery, then settled into an absent senator’s seat. It wasn’t until the next day, following a lengthy discussion of its legality by Nebraska Senator Thomas Walsh, that she took the oath. The junior senator from Georgia held onto her title until the following morning, when she was allowed to speak on the floor for the first and last time. Stepping out from her desk, Felton acknowledged that her appointment was a “romantic incident” but also called it a “historical event.”
“When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but very few in the next few years,” she predicted, “I pledge you that you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism and you will get unstinted usefulness.”
Felton painted her stint in Congress as a win for women, but as her speech hinted, it barely cracked open the door to the Senate Chamber. It would be another 16 years before Gladys Pyle won her Senate race in South Dakota, becoming the first woman elected senator without a prior appointment to fill a dead man’s seat. To this day, Georgia has still not elected a female senator; it didn’t even ratify the 19th Amendment until 1970. “We can really see the limits of the symbolism of [Felton’s] appointment there,” Gidlow says. “It’s not producing this substantive change.”
For many women, the door didn’t open at all. As Gidlow explains, after the 19th Amendment became law, Black women were subjected to humiliating literacy tests, made to stand in line until polls closed and even told that election officials wouldn’t register them. The historian’s research has identified at least one woman in Alabama who was sexually assaulted for attempting to vote. Black activists like Mary Church Terrell and Fannie Lou Hamer organized to fight voter suppression. But laws prohibiting voter discrimination on the basis of race weren’t passed until 1965; the first Black woman senator, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, was only elected in 1992.
As for Felton, she took the train back to Georgia, where she died of pneumonia at age 94 on January 24, 1930. Her accomplishments were chiseled onto her tombstone, with capital letters reserved for the one that made her most proud: “First woman United States senator.”
Symbolic though it was, Felton’s historic first reflects the political sway she’d won by the end of her life. That power grew directly from her white supremacist politics and calls to violence, which will always overshadow her memory as an advocate for women’s rights. “The legacy of white supremacist feminist politics—this is what it looks like,” Feimster says. “Do we celebrate that? Maybe not. But we acknowledge it.”