A Conversation with Melanie Goan

Joanna  Lile 's picture

This week I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Melanie Goan.  Dr. Goan, an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Kentucky, is currently conducting research for a book on the suffrage movement in Kentucky.  I asked her to address some of the ways she is seeking to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the movement, as well as some of the challenges and unexpected findings she has encountered along the way.   

JL: What are some of the main questions you are hoping to answer through your research?

MG: I study Kentucky history and I’ve always known the story of Kentucky suffrage through Laura Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge.  I know there is more to the story, however, than these two very visible leaders.  Some of my most basic questions are simple: Who supported suffrage?  Where were they from?  What did they do?  Why did they do it?  I’m especially interested in the where question.  I want to know about efforts in the far corners of Kentucky, in small communities throughout the state.  Some of the earliest local meetings are happening in places like Glasgow and London.  How did the priorities, tactics, and challenges of these women (and men, in many cases) compare to groups assembling in Lexington and Louisville?  As well, I am interested in assessing how race, age, and religion factored into women’s efforts to win the vote.  Throughout the South, fears of racial equality and efforts to protect segregation dictated suffrage strategies.  I want to know how Kentucky is similar, but my early research also suggests that we were different in important ways since our African-American population was always much smaller.  One other important question that I find perhaps most interesting is the question of how mundane life issues influenced and often interfered with women’s activism.  Illness, the challenges of caregiving, the pain of suffering through hot summers without air conditioning, these are the matters that underscore suffragists’ correspondence.   

JL: Can you share anything you have seen in Laura Clay's papers that you did not expect to find?

MG: The Clay papers are a real treasure-trove.  I have been pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit of correspondence between Clay and women all around the state who are reporting on their victories and very candidly lamenting their disappointments.  Of course, I expected to find coverage of her national activities and her interaction with the giants of suffrage—Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, and others.  Nevertheless, I have felt the thrill of holding letters from these women in my hands.  I knew Clay was well known, but you can see how nationally influential she is in her papers.  I had fun puzzling over a certain rather mysterious letter she received in 1908, addressed to “Citizen Laura Clay.”  Through a little sleuthing, I figured out that the writer, Henry Fackiner, was a serial letter writer, known for flooding the Detroit post office with rambling letters to public officials and famous figures.  Clay saved the letter.  There is no record that she responded, but I imagine she felt honored to be included on Fackiner’s list of important American leaders.   

JL: What challenges have you encountered so far?

MG: I ran into a snag recently when the Laura Clay collection was taken off-line to be reprocessed.  I was carefully working my way through her papers, but I’ll have to put that part of the project on hold for now and look in some other directions.    

JL: Why is it important to study the workings of social movements such as the suffrage movement on the state and local levels?   

MG: Americans tend to equate the suffrage movement with the Seneca Falls Convention and the Nineteenth Amendment.  We often overlook the long years of work and we forget that that rights varied from place to place with some women voting long before 1920.  Here in Kentucky women were voting in certain places and under certain terms as early as 1838.  The story is complicated and messy.  Focusing on the local and state level helps to bring that complexity to light.  It puts a face to the women who were working and it emphasizes the disagreements that women who shared the same end goal often found themselves in as they considered the best way to get there.    


I am grateful for the contributions Dr. Goan is making to the study of woman suffrage in Kentucky and look forward to learning more about her findings in the future.

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