It was a historic moment , nominally, at least. At noon on November 21, 1922, 87-year-old Rebecca Felton rose from her seat at the back of the Senate chamber. “The grand old lady,” as papers from the time referred to her, was swimming in garments flowing black skirts and billowing bonnet as she made her way down the aisle with Senator William Harris of Georgia. Once she arrived at the vice president’s desk, she was sworn in as the first female senator an office she would hold for a single day.
Felton’s appointment, which seems at first glance to be an important milestone for women, turned out to be an empty gesture. Her appointment proved to be a ploy by the Georgia governor, Thomas Hardwick, to advance his own career. The story of Rebecca Felton reveals that the arc of justice is long, prone to backpedaling and sometimes an outright mirage.
Rebecca Felton came into politics the only way women could at the time — playing a peripheral role supporting men. Felton was born to wealthy parents in DeKalb County, Georgia, in 1835. She married William Felton, a state legislator and physician, shortly after college at Madison Female College, where she was top of her class. She gave birth to five children, only one of whom survived into adulthood. When her husband ran for Congress in 1874, she became his campaign manager. Once he was elected, she played the role of de facto adviser, writing speeches and articles in his name.
Though Felton’s appointment was a breakthrough for women’s enfranchisement, her record on the enfranchisement of others was mixed at best. She held some progressive ideas: she was an ardent defender of women’s suffrage and opposed the convict leasing program that allowed companies to rent prisoners in what was essentially glorified slavery. But many of her other ideas were violently racist. Felton crusaded against the “threat” of black men, once remarking in a speech, “If it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.”
Felton was appointed to the Senate by Governor Hardwick after sitting senator Thomas Watson died in office. Hardwick had his eye on Watson’s empty seat and considered the 87-year-old woman an unthreatening placeholder until he could assume the role. Just as important, he needed to win over the very women voters he had tried to stymie by voting against suffrage. Felton was his gesture to them — and an empty one at that, as he tacitly admitted by reassuring his base that Felton would not actually be serving, since Congress was not in session and wouldn’t be again until after the special election the next day.
After her swearing-in, Felton posed for photos, surrounded by cheering, waving women. Later she was pictured alongside congresswoman Winnifred Huck, the first wife and mother elected to Congress (and the third woman), who was serving out the rest of her late father’s term. But many were not fooled by the pomp and circumstance surrounding Felton’s appointment. As Mrs. O Miller, the president of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, told crowds at the league’s annual convention, “Women do not want empty honors.”
Hardwick lost the special election to his fellow Democrat Walter George. At the end of her 24 hours of public service, Felton shook hands with George and gave up her barely warmed seat. During her farewell speech, which was the only time she spoke on the floor, she turned to the vice president and made a 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.”
There were indeed very few over the coming years. Felton died in 1930, and it wasn’t until 1932 that a woman would be elected to the Senate in her own right. That year, Hattie Caraway, originally appointed to the office after her husband’s death, shocked the country by beating out six men. Despite the clear example of progress, the media, and Caraway herself, constantly made demeaning allusions to her gender — a trend that would haunt politics for decades to come. Over the coming years, women would be measured by their appearances, given little media attention, criticized for being cold or unlikable, sabotaged by sexist campaigns, and generally held to a different standard than men. Even seven decades after Felton’s one day of service, in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman, only six women held Senate seats.