On this day in 1922 the cause of women’s rights advanced mightily in the United States Senate. On November 22, exactly ninety years-ago today, Rebecca Latimer Felton was sworn in as the first woman to serve in that august body.
Earlier that same year, Felton marked her eighty-seventh birthday. She was a life-long political activist. The Georgia native had spearheaded the cause of women’s suffrage. She was an outspoken temperance advocate, a regular columnist for the Atlanta Semi-Weekly Journal and a strong voice in the campaigns of her husband, William H. Felton.
Rebecca Felton was also an ardent segregationist and white supremacist. Therein lies one of the most persistent paradoxes of the American experience: one can be a champion of freedom and justice for one’s own constituency while simultaneously promoting the subjugation and marginalization of others.
Felton is hardly the lone example of this tendency. One need look no further than Thomas Jefferson. The second line in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” was written by a man who, at the time of writing owned two hundred other human beings. Neither he, nor many other white Americans saw any inherent conflict in the now plain hypocrisy.
These two examples go to a core dynamic of our world: In the headlong rush to secure one’s own rights and desires it is often easy to dismiss the consequences for other people. If we can cloak our dubious claims in the veil of the greater good, bad acts become all the more facile.
Modern political punditry and gamesmanship does this with even more nefarious aplomb. Perhaps the most egregious example of recent vintage came from the mouth of the late Lee Atwater, one of the Republican party’s most effective operatives.
Back in 1981, Atwater was working in the Reagan White House when he was interviewed by Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. Atwater explained to Lamis how Republicans could win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves. In 1954, he said, one could say the n-word to win the racist vote. By 1968, that had changed. “You can’t say (that) —that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than” using a racial epithet.
In 1984, Lamis published the interview redacting Atwater’s name in his book, The Two-Party South. Nearly a decade after Atwater’s death, Lamis republished the interview in another book using the Republican operative’s name. The credited interview went unnoticed for almost another decade when New York Times writer, Bob Herbert, quoted it in an October 6, 2005 column. Since then the remarks have taken on a legendary status as an artifact of calloused politics.
What’s perhaps worse is the lesser-known turn Atwater then makes, “(The voter —— absolved of racism) will be more likely to vote his economic interests than he will anything else. And that is the voter that I think through a fairly slow but very steady process, will go Republican… In my judgment Karl Marx [is right]… the real issues ultimately will be the economic issues.”
As suffragette who was a racist, a beacon of freedom who was a slave master and a conservative who touts Marxist ideology, such are the bedfellows that make us who and what we are. Nobody ever said the Shining City on the Hill wouldn’t be illuminated by the torches of a mob.