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October 3, 1922
First Woman Senator

Photo of Senator Rebecca Felton of Georgia
Rebecca Felton (D-GA)

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 the first 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 Felton.  His appointee had led a long and active political life.  A well-known suffragist and temperance advocate, she was also an outspoken white supremacist and advocate of racial segregation.  

At the time, 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 her 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 be legitimately seated.  Harding ignored these pleas.  Thus there was little chance that Felton would actually become a senator by taking the required oath in open session.  

On election day, despite his political calculations, Hardwick lost to Democrat Walter George.  When the Senate convened on November 21, 1922, George astutely stepped aside so that Felton could claim the honor of being the first female senator—if only for a day.  

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."

Reference Items:

Talmadge, John E.  "The Seating of the First Woman in the United States Senate." Georgia Review 10 (Summer 1956):  168-74.


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