Friday, November 16, 2012
I was reading an issue (November, Volume 13 Number 11) of the BBC's "History" magazine a few days ago, and in their "Milestones" feature (I believe it's a regular thing in which they highlight events which happened in that particular month throughout history) I ran across a small entry that caught my eye. It was a vintage black and white portrait photo of an elderly woman in old-fashioned garb, with white type over her black dress reading "Short-lived senator Rebecca Felton, c1922".
Intrigued -- because I had not realized there were any women serving as Senators that early in our country's history -- I looked online for more information about her. It turns out that she was an advocate for women's suffrage… and a racist. Here's the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on Felton:
"Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton (June 10, 1835 – January 24, 1930) was an American writer, lecturer, reformer, and politician who became the first woman to serve in the United States Senate. She was the most prominent woman in Georgia in the Progressive Era, and was honored by appointment to the Senate; she was sworn in on November 21, 1922, and served one day, the shortest serving Senator in U.S. history. At 87 years old, 9 months and 22 days, she was also the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate. As of 2012, she is also the only woman to have served as a Senator from Georgia. She was a prominent society woman; an advocate of prison reform, women's suffrage and educational modernization; and one of the few prominent women who spoke in favor of lynching."
I don't think this term existed in her time, but immediately upon reading this, the phrase "cognitive dissonance" (defined, again on Wikipedia, as "the state of people when holding two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment") leapt into my mind. Of course, given the descriptions of Rebecca Felton I found online, it seem unlikely -- though not impossible -- that she ever experienced the effects of cognitive dissonance. It is quite bizarre that someone who could easily recognize the injustice done to women in, for example, their not being allowed to vote, could also be totally blind to the injustices inherent in her own racist beliefs.
Humans are -- or, perhaps more fairly, can be -- truly strange creatures. -- PL