Special Elections Can Make History

Vacancies in the United States Senate sometimes create an opportunity to break a glass ceiling.  Many people know that Senator Bob Menendez, for example, became the first Latino United States Senator from New Jersey as the result of a vacancy. Few people, however, know the story of Rebecca Felton, who became the first woman United States Senator in America as a result of a vacancy in the State of Georgia.

Although Rebecca Felton served for less than 24 hours in 1922, she made history. By appointing her, Georgia Governor Thomas W. Hardwick shared a part of that history. To this day, Felton remains the only woman United States Senator from the State of Georgia.

In 1922, Georgia Senator Thomas E. Watson died in office. It was up to Governor Thomas W. Hardwick to fill the vacant seat.  Governor Hardwick had alienated women voters by opposing the 19th Amendment and wanted desperately to make amends and restore his electoral appeal to the new women voters. Even though Congress was in recess and not scheduled to reconvene until after a permanent successor was elected, Governor Hardwick seized the opportunity and appointed Felton.

While Felton accepted the appointment, she was not content with serving in name only. She was no stranger to politics; she actively campaigned for her husband, William H. Felton, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was a respected advocate for women’s rights and temperance.

Felton and her supporters called on President Warren G. Harding to convene a special session of Congress so Felton could present her credentials to the Senate.  The requests went unanswered until November 9, 1922, when President Harding called a special session of Congress to address merchant marine legislation. Georgia’s Senator-elect Walter F. George agreed to delay the presentation of his credentials to the Senate, paving the way for Felton to be officially sworn in.

During her one day in Congress, Felton eloquently addressed her peers. “When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but very few in the next few years, 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,” she stated.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.