A History of Women in U.S. Senate

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Good morning. It’s March 18. The observance of Women's History Month began when Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic congresswoman Barbara Mikulski of Baltimore co-sponsored a joint resolution designating March 8, 1981 as the beginning of “Women’s History Week.”

The theme became an annual one, and because a week is an insufficient length of time in which to consider the legacy of half the human population, the resolution was expanded in 1987 so that March became “Women’s History Month.”

By then, Barbara Mikulski was a colleague of Orrin Hatch’s – the voters of Maryland having sent her to the Senate in 1986. But the path taken by the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate was an unpropitious one.

The widow of a former Georgia congressman named Walter Felton, Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed as a political ploy on the part of Georgia Gov. Thomas Hardwick. The governor wanted to run for the vacant Senate seat himself, but he had a problem: he had actively opposed passage of the 19th Amendment. But it was now the law of the land, so how could he show solicitude for the female voters he’d never wanted to exist in the first place?

His solution was to appoint 87-year-old Rebecca Felton to the vacancy, the understanding being that with the Senate in recess until after the 1922 elections, she wouldn’t really ever be seated. Hardwick’s stunt did not proceed according to plan.

For starters, he lost on Election Day to another Democrat, Walter George. Secondly, President Harding delighted Rebecca Felton’s fans by calling for a lame duck session of Congress. And so, on Nov. 21, 1922, the Senate convened. The following day, Senator-elect Walter George heeded the hopes of the packed Senate gallery by stepping aside and letting Felton to take the oath of office as the United States’ first female senator.

In most respects, time has passed Rebecca Latimer Felton by: Georgia’s most prominent Progressive wouldn’t seem too progressive anymore. She agitated in favor of women’s suffrage, yes, but she was also active in the Prohibition movement, believed family farmers were the backbone of democracy, and was a committed segregationist whose liberal views on extending the voting franchise did not extend to blacks.

She served only one day in the Senate, but on that day she made a bold prediction that expressed the resolve of women across this country ever since – even those who never heard of her. Others were coming, she told her male colleagues, and the country would be better for it.

This became the unofficial rallying cry of a growing group of future female senators, whose pioneers included: Arkansas’s Hattie Caraway, the first woman elected in her own right (1932); Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith, the first former congresswoman elected to the Senate (1948); Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American senator (1992); New York’s Hillary Rodham Clinton, the only first lady – so far – who went to the Senate (2000).

Forty three women followed Rebecca Latimer Felton’s path. Twenty of them are in the Senate now, many of whom will be present today at the White House where perhaps the whispers of Rebecca Felton’s prediction will echo in the air.

“When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but very few in the next few years,” she told the male senators in 1922, “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.”

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