Businesswoman Kelly Loeffler, appointed Wednesday by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to replace Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, is set to become only the second woman to represent the Peach State in the United States Senate. But when she is sworn in next month, she will occupy the same seat once held for a single day in 1922 by Democrat Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first woman to ever serve in the chamber.
Felton, an activist for women’s suffrage and a newspaper columnist, already had a long political career when she was appointed at the age of 87 to represent Georgia in the Senate. During the 1870s, she served as an unofficial campaign manager, adviser and speechwriter to her husband, William Felton, who represented Georgia in the House from 1875 to 1881.
Following William’s retirement from politics and his death in 1909, Rebecca became an even more vocal advocate for women’s suffrage and equal pay. She was also an outspoken supporter of educational opportunities for girls, prison overhaul, public universities and prohibition. Despite these progressive views, Felton, whose family had owned slaves before the Civil War, was an unashamed white supremacist and segregationist, and she was critical of other progressive Southerners who questioned Jim Crow laws.
When Georgia Sen. Tom Watson died in office in September 1922, Gov. Thomas Hardwick appointed Felton to serve as a replacement until a special election could be held that November. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, nobody actually expected Felton to be sworn in since Congress was out of session and would not return until after the special election.
Hardwick, deciding to run in the special election, did not want to appoint a potential rival to the position. He was also hoping his appointment of a prominent suffragist would increase his appeal with Georgia’s female voters, especially important after his public opposition to the 19th Amendment.
The special election was ultimately won by Walter F. George. But, following an organized advocacy campaign by many Georgia women voters, George held off his swearing-in when the Senate reconvened, allowing Felton to be sworn in and serve in the chamber from Nov. 21 to Nov. 22.
While Felton’s 24 hours in the Senate might have only been a symbolic gesture, even at the time, many saw it as a sign for the future. During her sole speech on the Senate floor, Felton thanked George for letting her “have her day there,” before she told her Senate colleagues to take note of “the 10 million women voters who are watching this incident.”
She went on to say that “when the women of the country come in and sit with you [in the Senate] … 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.” Since Felton’s single day in Congress, 55 other women have become United States senators.
Felton’s views on women’s equality, including her support for equal pay for equal work, were a harbinger of things to come, though, like many white Southerners of that era, her legacy is complicated by her overtly racist views. She died in 1930.