Repeal of School Suffrage for Kentucky Second-Class Cities

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

Women's right to vote in school board elections In Lexington, Covington and Newport (Kentucky's second-class cities) was revoked in late January 1902. During the Lexington school board elections of 1901 there was a swell of political activity by Black women who were supporting the Republican Party. In fact, more black women registered to vote than white women. Newspapers and politicians alike complained that “illiterates” and “prostitutes” had overwhelmed the women’s voter booths. Lexington's Representative William A. "Billy" Klair and Senator J. Embry Allen introduced and led the campaign to repeal the 1894 partial suffrage statute. White women’s clubs came together to organize a Committee on Retention of School Suffrage for Women. Suffragist Laura Clay, Mary Creegan Roark (afterwards head of the Eastern Kentucky Normal School) and Ida Withers Harrison (a member of the school board in Lexington) lobbied the House committee, suggesting they add a literacy test to voter applications, but Klair’s bill moved forward favorably and, without discussion, the bill passed on January 24, 1902, with a 66-20 vote (Journal of the House of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky... ,185). Meanwhile, Frances Beauchamp of the WCTU led a group of women to attend the hearing on Allen's bill in the Senate Committee on Education. Despite the efforts by the white women activists, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the measure in both houses with little dissension by late January 1902 and signed into law by Governor J.C.W. Beckham. By 1908 the State Federation of Women’s Clubs took on the reinstitution of the right to vote in school board elections but it was defeated then and again in 1910.  By 1912 the Democratic Party included a school suffrage plank in its platform and since this partial suffrage at the municipal level already had the support of the Republican Party, the bill passed both Houses by a vote of more than two to one.

For the six electoral years between 1894-1902, Black women of Lexington, Newport and Covington were enfranchised on an equal basis with white women. However, the Lexington school board elections turned the tables allowing for a solution sought by the reactionary social and political attitudes that heightened after the assassination of Governor William Goebel in 1900. in 1901, the total registration of voters for the Lexington School Board election was 8,926, but the election returns showed only 4,570 votes tallied - a nearly 50% loss. (Comparably, the loss of turnout voters after registration in 1899 was 30% and in 1897 only 7%.) The Democratic Party in Lexington had overcome the huge majority of Republican women registrants in October 1901 with violence to assure their ticket was elected on November 1, 1901. See the related timeline entry on the controversial turnout by women for voter registration in Lexington in Fall 1901:


“Democratic Ticket won in the city and county – One race for magistrate and constable still in doubt: fraud freely indulged,” Lexington Herald (November 6, 1901).

“A Democratic Victory: The ‘times that tried men’s souls’ are over, and a splendid victory has rewarded the vigorous efforts of the Democracy of Lexington and Fayette County,” Morning Democrat (November 6, 1901).

“Resume of the Election in Fayette – Two missing precincts supplied – over 500 ballots rejected on technicalities,” Lexington Herald (November 7, 1901).

“The Election,” Kentucky Gazette (November 9, 1901).

“Reviewing Field of Carnage,” Morning Democrat (November 7, 1901).

Frankfort Morning Democrat (January 25, 1902).

Ida Husted Harper, ed., History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. VI (New York: NAWSA, 1922), 209.

Paul E. Fuller, Laura Clay and the Woman’s Rights Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992; orig. pub. 1975).

N.B. This entry is to support the digital timeline for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project (KWSP).