This week we are going have a double feature, the first two women to ever serve in the US Senate: Rebecca Felton and Hattie Caraway. Women having the right to vote was passed with the 19th amendment to the constitution in 1920, but it would be quite a while before women started taking office in the highest offices in the government. In fact, Rebecca Felton was appointed to be a Senator for a day in 1922, but Hattie Caraway, the first woman to be elected to the Senate was sworn in November 1931, almost a full decade after Rebecca served her day.
Several of the next female Senators would be widows of Senators who died in office. The first time more than 2 women served at once wouldn’t be till the 1990s. Even in the current congress, women only make up 22 percent of the elected body. Only 29 states have ever had a female senator, and only 51 women have ever served in Congress. The current congress is actually the highest percentage ever of women.
Rebecca Felton was born Rebecca Ann Latimer on June 10, 1935. She grew up in Decatur, Georgia with three siblings. Her father was a general store owner and merchant, and was able to afford to send his daughter to live with relatives in Madison so that she could attend Methodist Female College, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1852 at 17. The college at the time was set up to provide a foundation education for the women who would one day be the wives of the businessman and planters. However, the war between the states would soon see the educational facility closed down.
A year later Rebecca married William Felton and moved with him in Cartersville, Georgia. William was, like her father, a planter and owned a plantation. Her experiences during the civil war, both as a resident of Georgia who saw the results of Sherman’s march and her life as a slave owner influenced her later political life. She saw slavery as mainly economical, a investment. However, she felt that she would have rather have given up ‘domestic slavery’ then have seen the detriment of the war on Georgia.
After the war,both she and her husband became more politically active. Rebecca herself focused on prison reform and women’s suffrage. However, she was not a intersectional feminist by any means. She pushed against the right to vote for black citizens, claiming education and voting would lead to more black crime. She was in favor of lynching and was otherwise a supremacist in attitude.
Her time in the senate arrived as an appointment. in 1922, Sen. Thomas E. Watson died. The governor of Georgia, Thomas Hardwick, decided to appoint Rebecca as a placeholder till a special election could take place. However, congress didn’t meet again until after the special election was held. Hardwick had been running for the position, but ended up losing to Walter F. George. George decided to allow Rebecca to be sworn in on November 21, 1922. She was the Senator from Georgia for 24 hours, as George was sworn in on November 22.
Rebecca continued her activism after she left office. She passed away on January 24, 1930 at the age of 94. It would be another year before another woman would take office in the US Senate.
Hattie Caraway would be the first woman elected into the Senate, but like Rebecca it would start as an appointment.
She was born Hattie Ophelia Wyatt on February 1, 1878 in Bakersville, Tennessee. Like Rebecca, she was the daughter of a farmer who owned a store. The family as a whole moved to Hustburg when she was four. She would remain there till her college years when she would transfer from Ebenezer College to Dickson Normal College where she would earn her bachelors of Arts degree in 1896.
She went on to teach for about eight years prior to her marriage to Thaddeus Caraway. She had met Thaddeus in college, but the pair didn’t marry until 1902. The pair would move to Jonesboro, Arkansas with their three children and set up a legal practice for Thaddeus and cotton farm.
In 1912, the couple made a second home in Maryland after Thaddeus was elected to the US House of Representatives for Arkansas. He would hold that position for 9 years before he was elected senator in 1921. In 1931, Thaddeus died suddenly from a blood clot while the couple was back home in Arkansas. The governor decided to appoint Hattie to hold the seat till an election could be held. She won the special election to finish out her husband’s final term. She won an election on her own right in 1932, and then proceed to hold her seat until 1945.
During her time in office, she became the first woman to preside over the Senate, to chair a committee and to win a re-election. She was given the responsibility of presiding over the senate twice. Once in 1932 (although it was not officially noted down) and again in 1943. She was a great supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and his new deal programs, although she, like Rebecca before her, was against any anti-lynching bill. She was focused on issues dear to her state, requesting to serve on the agricultural committee. She earned a reputation as “Silent Hattie” for her lack of speeches made on the floor. She tended to reserve her opinions for committee meetings and rallies instead.
After loosing her re-election campaign in 1944, she served both Roosevelt and Truman on their Employees’ Compensation committees. She suffered a stroke in early 1950 while still serving on the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board , and died later that year on December 21.
Country Life in Georgia – Rebecca Felton (Ebook available free from Google Play)