Gender Matters pp 167-176 | Cite as

Rebecca Latimer Felton and the Wife’s Farm: The Class and Racial Politics of Gender Reform

  • LeeAnn Whites


It was the annual meeting of the Georgia Agricultural Society in the summer of 1897 on Tybee Island. The meeting hall was half-filled on that sultry August afternoon as Rebecca Latimer Felton took her place on the platform and commenced her speech, “Woman on the Farm.” The news that Rebecca Felton was speaking spread quickly and the hall was soon filled to overflowing with members of the Society and interested guests from the nearby hotels. By this time, Felton had become a well-known lecturer and political figure in the state. Born into a planter-class family in Decatur, Georgia, in 1835, she married Dr. William Felton, a minister, doctor, and planter, at the age of 18 and became the mistress of a slave plantation outside Cartersville, Georgia. Dr. Felton was twice elected to the U.S. Congress in the 1870s and Rebecca gained her first political experience as his campaign manager. She acquired a reputation for being a tough and argumentative politician, largely as a result of her editorials in support of her husbands’ small farmer policies.1


White Woman Gender Equity Farm Woman Domestic Life Slave Labor 
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  1. 1.
    The literature on Feltons’ political career is fairly extensive, no doubt partly because she eventually became the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Senate. See, for instance, John E. Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades (Athens, Ga., University of Georgia Press, 1960)Google Scholar
  2. Josephine Bone Floyd, “Rebecca Latimer Felton, Political Independent,1” Georgia Historical Quarterly 30 (March 1946): 14–34Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    This argument for agricultural diversification was undoubtedly a familiar one to her farmer audience. It had received new vigor as market prices for staple crops declined precipitously in the 1880s. For a discussion of organized farmer efforts to promote crop diversification and other agricultural reforms, see Robert McMath, Populist Vanguard: A History of Southern Farmers’ Alliance (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1975)Google Scholar
  4. Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York, Oxford University Press, 1978)Google Scholar
  5. Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century (New York, Norton, 1978)Google Scholar
  6. Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Partners and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890 (New York, Oxford University Press, 1983)Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    It was in making this connection between the position of women on the farm and the plight of southern farms in relation to market forces that Felton made an original contribution to the discussion of agricultural reform. The role of women and gender issues in the development of southern agricultural politics has received scant attention from southern historians as well. See Julie Roy Jeffrey, “Women in the Southern Farmers’ Alliance: A Reconsideration of the Role and Status of Women in the Late Nineteenth Century South,” in Our American Sisters: Women in American Life and Thought, Jean Friedman and William Shade, eds. (Lexington, MA, D.C. Heath, 1982), 348–371Google Scholar
  8. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Women in Nineteenth Century Agriculture,” in Agriculture and National Development: Views on the Nineteenth Century, Lou Ferleger, ed. (Ames, Iowa, Iowa State University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  9. Joan Jensen, With These Hands: Women Working on the Land (Westbury, NY, Feminist Press, 1981)Google Scholar
  10. Rachel Ann Rosenfeld, Farm Women: Work, Farm and Family in the United States (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Ibid. The relationship between the decline of agriculture and the increased participation rate of white farmer class women in wage labor, particularly textile production, is discussed by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall et al., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1987).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 9.
    For a further discussion of ways in which the development of wage labor, for women has served to contextualize womens’ unpaid domestic labor, see Teresa L. Amott and Julie A. Matthaei, Race, Gender and Work (Boston, South End Press, 1991), 291–314Google Scholar
  13. Julie Matthaei, An Economic History of Women in America: Womens’ Work, The Sexual Division of Labor and the Development of Capitalism (New York, Shocken Books, 1982)Google Scholar
  14. Claudia Goldin, Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (New York, Oxford University Press, 1990), 10–57.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    This “domestic reform” politics was not particular to Felton but was the basic approach of the leading womens’ reform organization of the South in the 1880s, the Womans’ Christian Temperance Union. The first commitment of the Union was to work to make men more responsible to the interests of their families, not to “liberate” women from their domestic position. See Lulu Barnes Ansley, History of the Georgia Womans’ Christian Temperance Union from Its Organization, 1883–1907 (Columbus, GA, Gilbert Printing Co, 1914)Google Scholar
  16. Ruth Bordin, Women and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873–1900 (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1981)Google Scholar
  17. Barbara Leslie Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism and Temperance in Nineteenth Century America (Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1988)Google Scholar
  19. Nell Irvin Painter, “An Educated White Woman in the Eras of Slavery: War and Reconstruction,” her introduction to Virginia Ingraham Burr, ed., The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Glanton Thomas, 1848–1889 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1990)Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnuts’ Civil War (New Haven, CT., Yale University Press, 1981), 169.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970)Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    Ibid. The lynching portion of Feltons’ speech has been discussed by Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation (New York, Oxford University Press, 1984), 424–430.Google Scholar
  23. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt against Chivalry: Jesse Daniel Ames and the Womens’ Campaign against Lynching (New York, Columbia University Press, 1974)Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    “Woman on the Farm.” For a further discussion of this tragic fusion between the failure of “protection” for white women and race reaction in early-twentieth-century Georgia, see Nancy MacLean, “The Leo Frank Case Reconsidered: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Making of Reactionary Populism,” Journal of American History 78 (December 1991): 917–948CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 30.
    C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South: 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1951).Google Scholar

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© LeeAnn Whites 2005

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  • LeeAnn Whites

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