|Classic Senate Speeches|
Rebecca Latimer Felton
Address by the First Woman Senator
November 22, 1922
The first woman ever to serve in the United States Senate rose to address her colleagues on November 22, 1922.
Rebecca L. Felton was appointed to the Senate on October 3, 1922, by a Georgia governor anxious to conciliate the newly enfranchised women of his state. Governor Thomas Hardwick, who had opposed the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote, intended to run for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Democratic Senator Thomas E. Watson on September 26, 1922. With Congress in recess and not scheduled to reconvene until after the Georgia election, he could afford to appoint a woman to the vacant seat until a successor was elected, thus extending an "olive branch" to the women whose votes he would need in the coming election. Senator Watson's widow was Hardwick's first choice; after she declined, the governor approached Felton.
The eighty-seven-year-old Georgian had led a long and active political life. A well-known and respected suffragist, temperance advocate, and Atlanta Semi-Weekly Journal columnist, she was also an outspoken white supremacist and advocate of segregation. She had actively campaigned for her husband, William H. Felton, throughout his long political career, which included service in the House of Representativs and the Georgia legislature. After her husband's death in 1909, Felton remained active in Georgia politics, endorsing Hardwick's 1920 gubernatorial bid--despite his hostility to woman suffrage and prohibition--after he announced his opposition to the League of Nations.
The first woman senator received her credentials in a local ceremony that Governor Hardwick orchestrated for maximium effect, but, as her biographer John Talmadge has noted, she was "unnaturally silent when Hardwick . . . explained that she could be sworn in only while the Senate was in session, and Congress could not convene till after her successor had been elected." Encouraged by an outpouring of support from the women of America, she decided to find a way to present her credentials to the Senate. Her supporters deluged President Warren G. Harding with letters urging him to call a special session of Congress to seat the new Georgia senator. Even a call from Felton herself failed to move the president, who had appointed her to a presidential advisory commission in 1921. But then on November 9, 1922, President Harding did call an extraordinary session of Congress to handle merchant marine legislation. This gave Felton her chance. She persuaded Walter F. George, Watson's elected successor, to delay presenting his credentials to the Senate, clearing the way for Felton to be sworn in when Congress convened on November 20, 1922.
The nation's first woman senator took the oath of office on November 21, 1922. On November 22, when Senator-elect George waited to present his credentials, "the happiest woman in the United States" addressed the Senate. Senator Felton acknowledged that "there may be but very few [women senators] in the next few years," but predicted that "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."
After concluding her remarks, Senator Felton saw her successor sworn in and departed for Georgia. Shortly after Felton's death on January 24, 1930, Senator George observed that "All in all she must be grouped among the great women of her time." The next woman senator, Democrat Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas, was appointed to succeed her husband, Thaddeus H. Caraway, in 1931; elected to a full term of her own in 1932, she served until 1945.
Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.