November 21, 1922: Rebecca Latimer Felton becomes the first female member of the U.S. Senate.
Felton was not only the first woman to serve in the Senate but also the oldest freshman senator (appointed at age eighty-seven), the shortest serving Senator (her symbolic term lasted a day), and the last former slaveowner to serve as a Senator. When one of her political allies and Georgia Senator died suddenly after the end of the 67th Congress, Governor Thomas Hardwick seized upon this chance to improve his standing with women voters, who remained cold to him for his opposition to the 19th Amendment (Georgia was notably the first state to reject the 19th Amendment and did not ratify it until 1970). Hardwick offered the post to Felton, who was then sworn in on November 21, 1922. She served for one day before the actual winner of the special election took the Senate seat.
Felton advocated strongly for women’s rights and education reform, especially for girls, while at the same time promoting a view on race relations that was quite the opposite direction in progressiveness. She, like many southerners at the time, was highly concerned with the threat she believed “half-civilized gorillas” - black men - posed to white women. Not only did Felton argue against black suffrage (while fighting for women’s suffrage), she actually spoke in favor of lynching black men as a means to ensure the safety of women. As a former slaveowner, she acknowledged the “abuses” that occurred because of slavery, one of these abuses being “ violations of the moral law”, meaning miscegenation. A proud southerner, lynching advocate, and women’s rights activist, Felton said of her own milestone term as senator:
A Senator of the U.S., a woman, is still a sort of political joke with our masculine leaders in party politics…. But the trail has been blazed! The road is apparently rough—maybe rocky—but the trail has been located. It is an established fact. While it is also a romantic adventure, it will ever remain an historical precedent—never to be erased.
The first woman elected to serve a full term as Senator was Hattie Caraway.