During the Civil War, women across Georgia and the south had to take over the men’s farming work as so many farmers put down their hoes and plow mule reins and picked up rifles to join the “fight against northern aggression.”
In those days, it was customary that the ladies of the plantations and high society always wore corsets and to not wear a corset was to exhibit crude behavior. But corsets proved to be too confining for hard work in the fields and women began shedding their bindings throughout the agricultural south.
More than 150 years later, that phenomenon led to author A. Louise Staman titling her 2006 book “Loosening Corsets,” an apt title for a book detailing the life of one of Georgia’s most accomplished turn-of-the-century women: Rebecca Latimer Felton.
The recent appointment of Kelly Loeffler as Georgia’s U.S. Senator replacing Johnny Isakson has renewed interest in Rebecca Felton who, on Oct. 3, 1922, at the age of 87, served one day as the first female U.S. Senator in the nation. Taking her oath of office on the Senate floor, a space heretofore reserved for men only, the Senate gallery was filled to overflowing with women suffragists who recognized the symbolic appointment of Rebecca Latimer Felton for a one-day term was a crowning achievement of their dogged work to open the voting polls to women, a right they had obtained only two years before.
Mrs. Felton was no stranger to Washington, D.C., as her husband, William Harrell Felton had served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Felton was an army surgeon for the Confederacy, a Methodist minister and a Georgia plantation owner …. and slave owner, which his wife later realized was wrong as she denounced slavery during her career of fighting for change in her native state.
Of particular interest to her and her husband was the fight to do away with Georgia’s convict lease system. In antebellum Georgia, and across the south, farmers relied on slaves to work their farms and plantations. With emancipation, southern land owners found it difficult to find workers to help with their crops.
So, during Reconstruction, the State of Georgia and other southern states turned to the convict lease system, wherein landowners could lease prisoners to work their lands. The first such lease was for 100 convicts for one year at a cost of $2,500. The system took a sinister turn in Georgia in 1869 when the state decided to lease out all 393 prisoners in the Milledgeville penitentiary, for no fee, to the company building the Macon and Brunswick Railroad, along which was a small station known as Station No. 8 1/2, later to become the City of Hazlehurst.
As most of the laborers in the convict lease system were black, Rebecca and William Felton recognized the system for what it was: little more than a continuance of slavery in Georgia. Indeed, many felt convict laborers were worse off than they were in slavery. At least as slaves they were property of value. As convict laborers, they were worth nothing. The Feltons fought for years to have the abusive system abolished and it wasn’t until 1908, under Gov. Hoke Smith, that the Legislature finally outlawed the system (Which led to the establishment of the chain gang system, a story for another time).
Once her work against the convict lease system proved successful, Rebecca Latimer Felton drew aim on the work of her younger sister, Mary Latimer McLendon, one of the pioneer suffragists of Georgia. Rebecca was a latecomer to the movement but she and her sister became a formidable team as, for decades, they fought hand-in-hand to get women access to the polls.
In May, 1919, women were allowed to vote in Atlanta municipal primary elections, a credit to the work of the Latimer sisters and other prominent Georgia women suffragists. A month later, with the support of only one southern senator, the U.S. Congress passed the Woman Suffrage Amendment and submitted it to the states for ratification. In August, 1920, when Tennessee ratified it, the 19th Amendment became the law of the land.
Two years later, Rebecca Latimer Felton served her one-day term in the U.S. Senate, a symbolic honor in recognition of the country’s suffragist movement. In 1930, at the age of 94, she passed away and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville.
[My thanks to Fonda Ussery who loaned me a signed copy of “Loosening Corsets.”]