Feminist, Racist, U.S. Senator:Rebecca Latimer Felton

August 30, 2009
Rebecca Latimer Felton, appointed 1st U.S. female senator

Rebecca Latimer Felton, appointed 1st U.S. female senator

Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first female U.S. senator, is an interesting case study because she embodies many of the political and social tensions extant in the nation, particularly the South, at the turn of the twentieth century.  That virulent racism and passionate feminism could exist in the same woman is not unique, as exemplified by the million or more WKKK, female Ku Klux Klan members associated with the male Klan of the 1920’s.  Many of these women were populists, national and local temperance supporters as well as social reformers determined to improve the plight of farmers and child laborers.  One might say that these feminist’s membership in the Klan was a statement of their political equality with men in their desire to govern themselves and guide the nation toward their own, racial segregationist, agrarian, nativist and protestant moral values.

Women of the KKK

Women of the KKK

Rebecca Felton held the position of U.S. Senator for a single day, as an appointee to temporarily fill the seat of Georgia populist and racist Thomas E. Watson.  She was 87 years old at the time of her appointment.  Other populist feminists were to follow as elected officials in state legislatures and in congress, but she was the first of her kind.  What makes her interesting is her vocal, longstanding and widely known positions on widely accepted issues of race and feminism.  The next two female office holders were duly elected from southern states: Hattie Caraway, Arkansas 1932 and Miriam A. Ferguson, Governor of Texas and Nellie t. Ross, Governor of Wyoming. Felton was also the last former slave owner to hold national office.

Like many feminists, northern and southern alike, Ms. Felton was indignant at the possibility of being governed by ignorant brutes like black males,Catholic or non-English speaking foreigners.

I wonder sometimes, if I don’t hear distant echoes of some of  Felton’s populist feminist arguments on both sides of the bitter Sexist/Racist divide.

Felton’s comments from Wikipedia:

“I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all. Is that fair?”

She believed white women were the natural allies and supporters of white males and white civilization.

(Hmmmmm. She didn’t find it unfair that black people were taxed for services they didn’t receive, even those enlisted in enforcing Jim Crow.)

She was also opposed to the hypocrisy and double standard of white male sexual and political privilege. On Slavery:

“There were abuses, many of them. I do not pretend to defend these abuses. There were kind masters and cruel masters. There were violations of the moral law that made mulattoes as common as blackberries. In this one particular slavery doomed itself. When white men were willing to put their own offspring in the kitchen and corn field and allowed them to be sold into bondage as slaves and degraded as another man’s slave, the retribution of wrath was hanging over this country and the South paid penance in four bloody years of war.” — from her 1919 autobiography Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth .

She was, however, a staunch believer in maintaining the social order of white supremacy and the myth of the ravishment of pure white womanhood by bestial blacks, by all means necessary:

“When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor justice in the court house to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue—-if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts—-then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.” August 11, 1897