Hamilton Female College Delegation in Lexington's 1916 Suffrage Parade

Randolph Hollingsworth (she/her) Blog Post

Perhaps it was the charisma of the vision that the new president Burris Jenkins had for a rejuvenated Transylvania College soon after he arrived in 1901. Perhaps it was the long tradition of Lexington's support for women's professional education and higher learning. At any rate, new faculty hires at Transylvania and the newly merged Hamilton Female College in the early 1900s created a unique grouping of women's rights activists. Dedicated to new ideas within their churches about women's roles in civic engagement, and ambitious about becoming experts in their academic fields, several women of note came together and formed longlasting relationships with each other and the cause of women's rights.


This group of women faculty brought a powerful light that could not be ignored within academic circles and civic life. Still today, women who work in academia recognize that these groupings, springing up at just the right moment, can be crucially life-affirming. This group began with the successful recruitment of a popular women's educational leader in the circle of colleges affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, Luella Wilcox St. Clair. In 1902 Luella Wilcox St. Clair (1865-1947), a Hamilton Female College alumnae and former president of the Christian Female College (also affiliated with the Disciples of Christ) was mourning the death of her husband and her only child when she was contacted by Burris Jenkins to come and take the helm at Hamilton Female College. St. Clair had already proved her worth as a fundraiser and school reformer in Missouri, and she did the same again in Kentucky at Hamilton Female College.

Laura Clay, president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, invited St. Clair to be a featured speaker during the Woman's Council at the Lexington Chautauqua in June 1903. At that Council, St. Clair had the opportunity to meet national suffragists and peace activists such as Reverend Anna Howard Shaw and Dr. Sophonisba Breckinridge, in addition to the state's leaders in women's education. One of Kentucky's most powerful suffragists and clubwomen, Ida Withers Harrison of Lexington, invited St. Clair to give the opening address at the Christian Woman's Board of Missions (CWBM) state convention in Bourbon County in September. This event provided her with introductions to some of the most progressive churchwomen in Kentucky who could open doors for her fundraising and recruiting. All these contacts became even more crucial after she returned to Missouri as president of Christian Female College in 1909 and became a leader in the women's suffrage movement there.

Hamilton College's circle of women progressive thinkers began to form around the effective leadership of St. Clair.


First, in 1902 Alice Tribble Karr (1881-1972) was promoted from her graduate student status to instructor in the Normal College of Kentucky University, then instructor in Mathematics for the newly constituted Transylvania University. Karr came from an ambitious merchant class family living on Main Street and climbed the social ladder through the Daughters of American Revolution clubwork. By 1920 she was rewarded with the role of Dean of Hamilton College.


In 1903, in quick succession, came Irene Tanner Myers, Ph.D. (1861-1941), one of the first women to graduate from Yale University and a loyal alumnae of the Disciples of Christ's Bethany College in West Virginia. She was pulled to Lexington from Boston where she was training settlement house teachers, and Jenkins appointed her Professor of European History and Dean of Women at Transylvania University.


That same year, Julia Woodworth Connelly (1857-1948) came to Hamilton Female College from teaching Expression and Physical Training in women's colleges in St. Louis, Missouri. A strong Presbyterian, she fit in comfortably with the well-read and well-traveled women of Lexington, becoming a regular in the Woman's Club of Central Kentucky.


In 1903 Sarah Anne McGarvey (1865-1951) left teaching music at Miss Annie and Mary McElhinny's school for girls to become professor of piano at Hamilton Female College. Her father, Rev. John William McGarvey, was a longtime professor and president of Lexington's College of the Bible who - a strict traditionalist - had left the Broadway Christian Church in protest of the introduction of instrumental music the previous year. Perhaps her father's patience with changes in his beloved Christian Church was severely tried by her choices of mentors: Rafael Joseffy in New York City and Moritz Moszkowski in Berlin, both European Jews and internationally renowned concert pianists.

In 1906 Jenkins resigned from the presidency for health reasons, and finally in 1908 he was replaced by an alumni of both Kentucky University and College of the Bible, Dr. Richard Henry Crossfield. An ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ, Dr. Crossfield became a prominent figure in the church nationally as well as a reformer of higher education. He had no qualms with progressive issues such as women's rights. Sadly, Lexington lost the dynamic St. Clair in 1909 when she returned to serve again as president of Christian Female College in Missouri. Crossfield then promoted the affable folklorist Hubert Gibson Shearin, PhD (Yale 1902) to Professor of English Philology and President of Hamilton College. This might not have surprised Dr. Myers who is still Dean of Women and history professor, but it must have been a blow to her sense of professional worth within the merged system of colleges. Nevertheless, Dr. Myers did not hesitate to join in with KERA activists to speak before the Kentucky Federation of Labor in January 1911 and convince them to endorse women's right to vote.

Finally, in the fall of 1914, Dr. Crossfield worked with Ida V. Thomson (1865-1918) to negotiate the acquisition of her Bourbon Female College in Paris. Thomson agreed to come to Lexington to serve as president of Hamilton, bringing with her a history of successful leadership in Disciples of Christ schools for women's education.


By this time, Lexington women had won back the right to vote in school board elections - lost in 1901 to the partisan politics and racist fears of organized black women voters - with a statewide law passed in 1912. Literacy tests at the polls made educational achievements a part of women's civil rights; and, all the educational rallies in 1907-1908 together with the creation of local School Improvement Leagues brought many different kinds of women across the state into conversations about how to better their families and to build a better community. Women in higher education, in particular, had gained a slightly larger presence on campus and many felt they had a larger role to play in progressive politics. For example, Dr. Myers had already begun to take her experience in Boston with teacher training for non-English-speaking working class populations into her ambitions for a campaign to reach out to illiterate and poorly schooled South American women.

So, knowing he had the support of a group of educated and committed women in the faculty of both Transylvania and Hamilton as well as the suffragists in the Christian Woman's Board of Missions, Dr. Crossfield took up with his Christian Church colleagues the kinds of conversations and negotiations required to assure the successful passage of a resolution supporting women's suffrage. In Madisonville, at the eighty-third annual convention on September 22, 1915, Dr. Crossfield presented the resulting version of a resolution:

"Whereas, the principle of equal suffrage is founded on justice and righteousness and has been a mighty factor in the elimination of the open saloon, gambling, the white slave traffic and other forms of crime and vice, where women have been given the franchise. Therefore, be it resolved that we, both Christian and Democratic, endorse the principle of equal suffrage as both Christian and Democratic and one that should prevail in the nation."

The resolution was seconded by the Rev. D.M. Walker of Stanford and Rev. Homer W. Carpenter of Shelbyville. Dr. E.B. Barnes of Richmond, president of the convention, called for the vote and the resolution was unanimously endorsed. The wording reflected the strong influence of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) with its list of various forms of crime and vice. The Kentucky WCTU continued to serve as an important ally of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association to win full citizenship rights for women, to curb the worst violences of poverty and domestic abuse, raise the age of consent and to halt sex trafficking all the while taking on the powerful liquor industry.

The public stance by their president upon endorsing women's suffrage in 1915 and the power of the group of progressive women faculty at Transylvania University led to the large turn-out of Hamilton College delegation for the National Suffrage Day parade in Lexington in May 1916. The Lexington Herald, owned and edited by suffragists Madeline and Desha Breckinridge, gave plenty of room to list the fifty-four names of those women from Hamilton College who had signed up to march in the parade on May 7th. The list included the faculty group of activists: Julia W. Connelly (dramatic art), Alice T. Karr (mathematics), Sarah A. McGarvey (piano), and Ida V. Thomson (president). Irene T. Myers was still on her evangelical mission in South America, and Luella St. Clair was actively pursuing suffrage work in Missouri. Dr. Crossfield also marched as part of the "Men's League for Women Suffrage." The marchers followed the girl bugler in her cart, bands, floats and horsewomen in two columns with plenty of distance between the marchers. Almost everyone wore the suffragist white since, as they were told "the effect will be much better," and yellow "Votes for Women" sashes were handed out to all. The floats included women in tableau vivant showing the states where women already had won full voting rights and the blind-folded Kentucky which denied women full access to the vote just a few weeks previously in the recent legislative session. Along the sides of the floats, mottos stating their case:

  •   "New Zealand has the lowest baby death-rate in the world. In New Zealand mothers have voted for twenty years."
  •   "Kansas has the best health record for 1915 of any state in the Union. In Kansas mothers vote."
  •   "In Kentucky horses and cattle are registered. Our baby registration is still so poor that we can not estimate our baby death-rate. In Kentucky the breeders of cattle and horses vote. Mothers cannot vote."

The nearly 1000 marchers of men, women and children started at Gratz Park, marched from Third Street to Broadway, south on Broadway to Main Street to the Union Station and back west again to Cheapside where they gathered for suffrage songs and a speech by suffrage orator Walter J. Millard.

It must have been an exciting time, planning for and then participating in the suffrage parade. The sights and sounds of the day likely overwhelmed everyone: banners hanging from all the buildings along the route, the roar of the crowds (both admiring and those who jeered), the beautiful horses prancing to the music of the several bands, excited children, and the support from professional groups - all promoting the cause for women's rights. The Hamilton College faculty and students must have experienced a kind of giddiness of being part of something larger than themselves. What happened that evening after they changed out of their suffragist dresses? The next week?  

Finding this group of women faculty who made a difference in each other's lives and those of their students has been a real joy. They have been ignored by the histories of Transylvania and higher education in Kentucky, but weaving their stories back in to the larger context of the women's rights movement offers me a new view into a narrative hitherto centered on male academic leaders.