Gender Matters pp 151-165 | Cite as

Rebecca Latimer Felton and the Problem of Protection in the New South

  • LeeAnn Whites


On November 21, 1922, women packed the galleries of the U.S. Senate. Delegations from every womens’ organization in Washington were present for the introduction of the first woman senator ever. Hale and hearty despite her 87 years, the new junior senator from Georgia rose to give her maiden speech. “The women of the country have reason to rejoice,” she asserted. “This day a door has been opened to them that never was opened before.”1 Rebecca Latimer Felton had particular reason to rejoice, and to be proud, for not only was she the first woman to be so honored but, equally important to her, she was a woman of the South, of Georgia. As she later wrote, “It meant that a woman reared in the sheltered security of an antebellum plantation was to be the first of her sex to sit in the U.S. Senate. It was hard to realize ... . Who in that day would have had the hardihood to predict that the time would come when Georgia women would hold public office”?2


White Woman Black Woman Gender Equity White Motherhood Farm Woman 
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  1. 1.
    Rebecca Latimer Felton, The Romantic Story of Georgias’ Women (Atlanta, Atlanta Georgian and Sunday American, 1930), 44.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See A. Elizabeth Taylor, “Development of the Womans’ Suffrage Movement in Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 62 (December 1958): 339–354Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For a discussion of the centrality of protection to antebellum white gender relations, see Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York, Oxford University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
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    The outcome of this wartime rupturing of antebellum gender roles is contested. In her pathbreaking study, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970), Anne Scott argued that the Civil War “opened every door” for elite white southern women. More recently, historians have argued in a more pessimistic vein. Suzanne Lebsock, The Five Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784–1860 (New York, WW. Norton, 1984)Google Scholar
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    Rebecca Latimer Felton, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (Atlanta, Index Printing, 1919), 29.Google Scholar
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    Scott, The Southern Lady, 3–22. See also Catherine Clinton, Plantation Mistress: Womans’ World in the Old South (New York, Pantheon Books, 1982).Google Scholar
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    Felton, Country Life, 25. See also Felton, “Impact of the Civil War on Women.” For a more general discussion of the ways race and class position tended to override gender identification, see Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New York, Basic Books, 1985)Google Scholar
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    Rebecca Latimer Felton, “Education of Veterans’ Daughters,” 1893, Felton Papers. The fact that Felton came to identify with lower-class white women in the context of her own class fall does not mean that the sentiment was reciprocated. For a discussion of the difference class location could make in the political commitments of Southern women, see Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “O. Delight Smiths’ Progressive Era: Labor, Feminism, and Reform in the Urban South”; Dolores Janiewski, Sisterhood Denied. Race, Gender, and Class in a New South Community (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1985)Google Scholar
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    Frances Willard, Woman and Temperance or the Work and Workers of the WCTU (Hartford, CT, Park Publishing, 1883), 570.Google Scholar
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    Ibid. For a discussion of the centrality of drink to southern male culture, see Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865–1920 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1990).Google Scholar
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    Felton, “Southern Women and Farm Life.” Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black White Relations in the American South since Emancipation (New York, Oxford University Press, 1984)Google Scholar
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    Felton, “Votes for Women,” In retrospect, clear parallels can be drawn between southern black womens’ efforts to organize to protect themselves against abusive white men or against debilitating stereotypes in their own communities and the organizing efforts of southern white women like Felton, even though white women rarely recognized the similarities between them at the time. See Darlene Clark Hine, “‘We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible’: The Philanthropic Work of Black Women,” in Lady Bountiful Revisited: Women, Philanthropy and Power, Kathleen McCarthy, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1990), 70–93Google Scholar
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    Rebecca Latimer Felton, “Southern Congressman Opposing Equal Suffrage,” n.d., Felton Papers. For a further discussion of the relationship between the woman suffrage movement and the politics of white supremacy in the South, see Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993).Google Scholar

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© LeeAnn Whites 2005

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  • LeeAnn Whites

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