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First Woman Senator

October 3, 1922

Photo of Senator Rebecca Felton of Georgia

The governor faced a serious political dilemma. He wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, but his earlier opposition to ratification of the Constitution’s equal suffrage amendment seriously alienated many of his state's women voters. How could he gain their allegiance?

On October 3, 1922, Georgia's Democratic governor Thomas Hardwick made history by appointing a woman to a Senate vacancy. He believed this act would appeal to the newly enfranchised women of Georgia. Taking no chances of creating a potential rival for the seat in the upcoming general election, he chose 87-year-old Rebecca Latimer Felton.

His appointee had led a long and active political life. When her husband, William Harrell Felton, served in the state legislature (1851; 1884-1890) and the U.S. House of Representatives (1875-1881), she served as his campaign manager, press secretary, and often his political surrogate while simultaneously pushing for temperance, populist agrarian reforms, and woman suffrage. An ardent advocate for equality of the sexes, she was also an outspoken white supremacist who promoted racial segregation. Beginning in 1899 and continuing for more than 20 years, Felton wrote a popular column for the Atlanta Semi-Weekly Journal, dispensing advice on everything from child-rearing to farming to voting.

At the time of the appointment, the Senate was out of session and not expected to convene until after the election, when the appointed senator would have to step aside for an elected replacement. Felton’s supporters deluged President Warren Harding with requests that he call a special session of Congress before the November election so that she could take the oath in open session. At first, Harding ignored the pleas, and there seemed to be little chance that Felton would serve as a fully sworn-in U.S. senator.

On election day, despite his political calculations, Hardwick lost to Democrat Walter George. Later that month, whether due to pressure from Felton's supporters or for other reasons, Harding called Congress into session. When the Senate convened on November 21, 1922, George astutely stepped aside so that Felton could take the oath of office as the first female senator.

In her address the following day to a capacity audience, the Georgia senator described a cartoon she had received showing the Senate in session. "The seats seemed to be fully occupied, and there appeared in the picture the figure of a woman who had evidently entered without sending in her card. The gentlemen in the Senate took the situation variously,” she continued. “Some seemed to be a little bit hysterical, but most of them occupied their time looking at the ceiling," without offering the newcomer a seat. Felton concluded with the following prediction. "When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but very few in the next few years, 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."