History of Kentucky Women's Suffrage: An Overview

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

In 1838, Kentucky passed the first statewide woman suffrage law (since New Jersey revoked theirs with their new constitution in 1807) – allowing female heads of household to vote in elections deciding on taxes and local boards for the new county “common school” system. The law exempted the cities of Louisville, Lexington and Maysville since they had already adopted a system of public schools. Kentucky was crucial as a gateway to the South for women’s rights activists. Lucy Stone came through Louisville in November 1853 – wearing her own version of Amelia Bloomer trousers – earned $600 with thousands packing the halls each night. After the Civil War, when the 13th Amendment was ratified by 2/3 of the states -- not including Kentucky -- on January 1, 1866, Lexington’s Main Street was filled with African Americans in a military parade, followed by Black businesspeople and several hundred children with political speeches at Lexington Fairgrounds (now the University of Kentucky). By March a Black Convention was held in Lexington to discuss equal rights for Blacks. The next year, for July 4th, a barbecue organized in Lexington by Black women included speeches made by both Black and by White speakers in favor of black suffrage and ratification of the 14th Amendment. That fall, another Black Convention included a debate on how to gain full civil rights for Blacks, including the right to vote and the right to testify in court against whites.

The American Equal Rights Association formed out of the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention and a merger with former abolitionists -- they wanted to lobby the new federal government and the states for full rights for all citizens. In 1867 Virginia Penny of Louisville was elected Vice-President - her first book, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman's Work was recently published (1863). In 1867, the first suffrage association in the South is in Kentucky – Glendale, with 20 members, near Elizabethtown. Also first in the South, Kentuckians formed two suffrage associations - one in Madison County and the other in Fayette County. These started in the 1870s under the leadership of Mary Barr Clay who has already begun serving in both the national suffrage associations (NWSA and AWSA) as vice-president. In October 1881, the AWSA held its national convention in Louisville, Kentucky - the first such convention south of the Mason-Dixon line. The success of this convention and the accompanying public lectures was due to the organizational efforts of Mary Barr Clay as well as prestigious Louisville women such as Susan Look Avery. At this convention, the first statewide suffrage association in Kentucky was founded, and the youngest of the Clay sisters, Laura, was elected president. This is the first suffrage organization to represent a state in the South. Meanwhile, black women worked in their local and state organizations to rally for the right to vote. In July 1887 Mary E. Britton spoke for woman suffrage at the Kentucky Colored Teachers Association meeting in Danville.

When the two national suffrage groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890, Laura Clay became the main voice for Southern white clubwomen. She led many campaigns through the South and the West on behalf of the NAWSA while she continues to support efforts in Kentucky to proliferate city/county suffrage associations -- seven of them by 1890. In February 1894 Sallie Clay Bennett (Laura's older sister) spoke on behalf of the NAWSA before the U.S. Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage emphasizing the right of black men and women to vote because all were citizens. Mrs. Bennett wrote a political treatise that was presented to Congress by Senator Lindsay and Rep McCreary on behalf of the NAWSA, "asking Congress to protect white and black women equally with black men against State denial of the right to vote for members of Congress and the Presidential electors in the States…” – writing private letters to every member of Congress and sending copies to editors of newspapers in every state. Eugenia B. Farmer of Covington figured out that the charters for second-class cities in Kentucky were up for renewal and the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) lobbied successfully in the Kentucky Constitutional Convention to get the legislature to grant those municipalities the right to grant woman suffrage.  

In March 1894 the Kentucky General Assembly granted school suffrage to women in the cities of Lexington, Covington and Newport; and, Josephine Henry succeeded in her lobbying for the state law for a Married Woman's Property Act. In 1902, because of the fear of an organized bloc of Lexington's African-American women registered to vote for school board members in the Republican Party, the Kentucky legislature revoked this partial suffrage. The Kentucky Association of Colored Women’s Clubs formed in 1903 with 112 clubs, and suffrage was a part of the efforts undertaken by their clubs.

From the perspective of those who emphasized the strategy of gaining a federal amendment, the period 1896-1910 seemed to be a lull in the movement’s energies. Eleanor Flexner, an early historian of women’s suffrage, followed the lead taken by Elizabeth Cady Stanton that work in state clubs or the South as a whole was not important to the national movement.  The newly organized Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs (whites only) formed and lobbied to regain school suffrage in Kentucky, finally winning it back in 1912 with an added proviso (just for women) of a "literacy" test.

In 1912 Laura Clay stepped down as president of KERA in favor of her distant cousin Madeline McDowell Breckinridge; and in 1913 Clay was elected to lead a new organization, the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, founded to win the vote through state enactment. That fall, Louisville celebrated the centennial of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory over the British in the War of 1812 - and a suffrage float was included, the first known public parade for Kentucky suffragists. Parades were becoming an important part of suffrage activism across the nation. Lexington followed up with a May Day celebration of suffrage with a parade in 1915 and again in 1916. With the start of the First World War, many Kentucky women transitioned their suffrage work into patriotic efforts for the war. When the United States entered the war formally in 1917, a small group of Louisville women joined in with the National Women's Party to protest President Woodrow Wilson's change of heart. Most Kentucky suffragists openly condemned the public protests by the NWP. Cornelia Beach and Edith Callahan attended the annual conference of the NWP as delegates from Kentucky, and in August 1917 Cornelia Beach participated in the picketing of the White House. She was arrested, refused to pay the fine and together with a few others was released on a $100 bond. The rest were sent to jail.

In August 1918 Laura Clay and Mrs. Harrison G. (Elizabeth Dunster) Foster, formerly a suffrage leader in Washington, formed the Citizens Committee which formally broke with KERA - and the next year, Laura Clay finally quit working for NAWSA. The group focused on securing a state suffrage bill in Kentucky. Kentucky's statewide presidential suffrage for women, a goal long sought by those in KERA and those of the former AWSA, is signed into law on March 29, 1920.

In the early days of January 1920, National Woman's Party members Dora Lewis and Mabel Vernon traveled to Kentucky to assure success, and on January 6th, Kentucky became the 23rd state to ratify the 19th Amendment. On December 15, 1920, the Kentucky Equal Rights Association officially became the Kentucky League of Women Voters. Mary Bronaugh of Louisville was the first president of the state chapter.

See more on this state's suffrage history at the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project (http://networks.h-net.org/kywomansuffrage).


Key Resources for Further Study

Fuller, Paul E. Laura Clay and the Woman’s Rights Movement. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.

Hay, Melba Porter. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

Kerr, Andrea Moore. Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality. Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Knott, Claudia. “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Kentucky, 1879-1920.” Lexington, Ky.: Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1989.

Lucas, Marion. A History of Blacks in Kentucky, Volume 1: From Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891. Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 1992.

McDaniel, Karen Cotton. "Local Women: The Public Lives of Black Middle Class Women in Kentucky Before the 'Modern Civil Rights Movement.'" Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2013.


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