Laura Clay (1849-1941), Kentucky Suffragist and Voice of the South

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Laura Clay (February 9, 1849 — June 29, 1941) grew up in a large family of activists at a farm in Madison County. Her father, Cassius Clay, was a friend of Abraham Lincoln and ambassador to Russia. Her mother, Mary Jane Warfield Clay, and her sisters all supported the woman suffrage movement, and farming kept them economically independent as they went on in life, whether divorced or married. Laura's older sisters (Mary Barr, Sallie and Annie) began working for the national suffrage movements, both the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and their mother would mail newspapers to her daughter Laura at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to keep her informed. Laura attended the 1881 AWSA convention in Louisville (the first national convention for suffrage held in the South).

After that very successful convention, she joined in with a group of twenty-five members who founded the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association - the first state suffrage club in the South. Laura Clay was elected President and Col. John H. Ward of Louisville was elected Vice-President. Not much evidence is currently available to analyze what happened with this early version of the state-wide suffrage association. While her older sisters were already widely known for their suffrage activities, Laura does not really hit her stride for this work until after she began her partnerships with Henrietta B. Chenault of Lexington (wife of the Asylum Director Dr. R.C. Chenault) and an educator/activist from Versailles, Josephine Henry. These important collaborations served the state's suffrage movement very well.

In 1888 Lucy Stone stayed with Mary Jane Warfield Clay in Lexington (see the Kentucky "Votes for Women Trail" digital map entry here) just before the AWSA convention that took place that year in Cincinnati. Stone invited Laura to present at the convention, and they worked on how the state suffrage association could be revitalized. Laura was soon thereafter elected president of the new Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA), for which she served as president until 1912. Because she also held leadership roles in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs, she was able to convince members of many women's clubs to join the KERA and participate in collaborative efforts. Laura's speech on woman suffrage at the Kentucky Constitutional Convention on December 12, 1890, (transcribed and available online on WikiSource) is a wonderful study of her political ideology at this time. By the mid-1890s KERA lobbying had won a number of legislative and educational victories, including protection of married women's property and wages, a requirement that there be women physicians in state female insane asylums, and the admission of women to a number of all-male colleges. KERA went on through the followng decade to convince the legislature to provide for a women's dormitory at the University of Kentucky, establish juvenile courts and detention homes, and raised the age of sexual consent for girls from twelve to sixteen years. See a photo of Miss Clay's delegate badge from Lexington for the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, saved in the Laura Clay collection, University Special Collections and Research Center:

The years spanning 1890-96 were important times for the national efforts for woman suffrage: the leaders of the two organizations had agreed to reunite in one major association, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Laura Clay became the leading Southern voice in NAWSA meetings, gaining a strong position under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony. Laura's efforts were largely responsible for the establishment of suffrage societies in nine of the former Confederate states. Clay addressed constitutional conventions in Mississippi and Louisiana, and she managed a NAWSA effort to add woman suffrage to the South Carolina constitution of 1895 (which was unsuccessful). With the death of Lucy Stone and the NAWSA's emphasis on meeting the needs of conservative white women's groups in the South, white suffragists began to turn their backs on African American women and their activism - just as their own clubs were getting organized at the national level.

In January 1896 at the convention in Washington D.C. Laura Clay was elected auditor of the NAWSA, a post she held for fifteen years. She maintained an important position of moderation and conciliation on the NAWSA board in conflicts over both race and personality. She also spoke on behalf of Southern suffragists - and the NAWSA's Southern Strategy:

"I wish to speak in regard to the prejudice and ridicule with which Woman Suffrage is said to meet in the South. The opposition to Woman Suffrage in the South is wholly a matter of conservatism and ignorance. Southern women are no less intelligent, progressive and open-minded than the women of any other section, but they have had other things to do. They have had the whole weight of a social problem upon their hands, and they have had to bear the burdens left by the war. They have not had time to think much about the "new woman," but they have *been* new women. The opposition of Southern ministers is largely due to their belief that the Bible is against it. Whenever our women will go to them learned in the Scriptures as Priscilla was, they can soon convert the ministers. One of our Kentucky delegates now present in this convention has converted Methodist ministers by the score. I believe the South is just as hopeful a field as the West. (57, Proceedings of the Twenty-eighth Annual Convention of the ... National American Woman Suffrage Association. Washington, D.C., January 23rd to 28th, 1896). She continued: "I still regard the South as the strategic point, and as our most hopeful field after the West, where we seem to be on the brink of immediate succes. The next great political movement in this country will probably be a coalition between the South and West. The West is ready to put woman suffrage into its program if it is not hindered by fear of the solid South; but no political party will antagonize the solid South for the sake of woman suffrage. What we must do is to break the solid South on this question. The fundamental principles of our government are not wholly ridiculed and despised in the South, whatever they may be elsewhere. When we go through the South advocating woman suffrage, without attaching to it dress reform, or bicycling, or anything else, but asking the simple question why the principles of our forefathers should not be applied to women, we shall win. The South is ready for woman suffrage, but it must be woman suffrage and nothing else. (76)" 

She continued to work on behalf of KERA's efforts as they continued to lobby the Kentucky legislature for reform of public works and women's rights. See below a flyer for her presentation before the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1898 together with Josephine Henry and Eugenia Farmer - find the original broadside in the Laura Clay collection in the University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center:

As an unpaid NAWSA field worker, she also directed suffrage campaigns in Oregon, Oklahoma, and Arizona. While chair of the association's membership committee, she introduced recruiting innovations that almost tripled the number of members, from 17,000 in 1905 to 45,501 in 1907. 

At the NAWSA convention late in 1911 Laura Clay failed to win reelection as auditor to the board. She complained to friends about the concentration of power at the New York headquarters. Despite her removal from the board of the NAWSA, Clay continued to chair association committees, contributed to fund drives, and work in numerous state suffrage campaigns.

With the Kentucky legislature's grant of school suffrage in 1912, KERA won a partial victory in their quest for full enfranchisement. Laura Clay stepped down and was replaced as president of KERA by Madeline McDowell Breckinridge. She went on in 1913 to become vice-president of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, founded by Kate Gordon of Louisiana to win the vote through state enactment. She continued to support the efforts by KERA to lobby their legislators for support for a suffrage amendment. Together with Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, she spoke before a joint session of the Kentucky legislature on January 14, 1914 - the first time women had been granted the right to do so. Clay joined the Woman's Peace Party (WPP) soon after it was formed, and she served as party chairman in the Seventh Congressional District of Kentucky. Her public speeches on behalf of the WPP always stressed woman suffrage as the party's cornerstone. But once President Wilson began his campaign to get Congressional approval to join the war, she joined the Fayette County Red Cross Society and broke with the party's call for a referendum. On behalf of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference she traveled to Iowa to get the vote out to ratify the state constitutional amendment - this poster can be found in her papers at the University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center.

She continued to mentor the various leaders of the state's county Equal Rights Associations - see the photo below of her (in center with dark umbrella) with a group that participated in the silent protest at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis in 1916.

Meanwhile, Laura began to advocate for a "U.S. Elections Bill" which, if passed by the U.S. Congress, would give women the right to vote for federal legislators from their states. The U.S. House of Representatives defeated the "Susan B. Anthony Amendment" in January 1915. In 1916 the NAWSA convention endorsed both federal and state suffrage work.

Carrie Chapman Catt had returned to the NAWSA presidency in late 1915 with her "Winning Plan" which was to research each of the federal legislators and states to find out which ones to work on to get the federal amendment in place. Laura Clay's U.S. Election Bill did not fit in to this initiative. On Sept 30, 1918, Woodrow Wilson finally spoke in person in the U.S. Senate to endorse a federal amendment - that the measure was vital to the winning of the war. Catt denounced Clay's 1916 compromise (working at both state and federal levels) as devisive and insisted on full attention of all chapters on the national effort. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge thought that there was a good chance that the Kentucky legislature would have allowed for statewide woman suffrage in 1918, but the KERA leadership agreed to fall into line with what NAWSA was planning. Laura began to call the federal amendment the "Anthony Force Bill" and alienated friends in both NAWSA and KERA.

At the KERA convention March 11, 1919, the Louisville delegation called for resolutions calling upon all KY members of Congress to vote for Federal Suffrage Amendment, and Breckinridge (then reelected as president) supported Clay in a call for a state bill. The convention agreed to consult the NAWSA and take on a state approach only if NAWSA agreed. That same month, the NAWSA met in St. Louis and Clay tried to return to the 14th Amendment and removing the word "male" from section 2.

In May, Clay met with the KERA representatives at the Republican State convention and argued that KERA had made an error in abandoning efforts for a state law for presidential suffrage which was needed in order to be consistent with the Kentucky constitution. The U.S. House of Representatives finally passed the 19th Amendment in May 21, 1919, and when Senate finally approved it on June 4, 1919, it was passed to the states for ratification.  Clay then resigned from KERA and the NAWSA. 

Together with Washington suffragist, Mrs. Harrison G. (Elizabeth Dunster Gibson) Foster who had returned home to live in Lexington, Laura Clay formed a "Citizen's Committee for a State Suffrage Amendment." See the newspaper clipping from the Pettit, Duncan, Gibson Family Papers, Box 199a, University of Kentucky Special Collections and Archives.

In a "open letter to the public" (sent to all Kentucky legislators), Clay started a public debate with KERA President Breckinridge on the merits of a statewide law rather than a federal amendment granting women suffrage. The Lexington Herald in February 1919 published several articles by Clay and John T. Shelby in opposition to those by Madeline McDowell and Desha Breckinridge. Madeline (representing NAWSA and KERA) and Laura (representing the Citizens Committee) met at the Woman's Club of Central Kentucky in Lexington in October 1919 to debate the merits of a federal amendment. Clay's States Rights perspective won that debate that day - the panel of male judges declared Laura Clay the winner. Laura also began a letter-writing campaign to legislators in the West seeking support for state-governed approach to the franchise so to best control access to white, native-born only.

But on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment had garnered the 36 states needed and was adopted. Laura Clay then went on to help organize the Democratic Women's Club of Kentucky. She served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1920. There, Laura Clay became the first woman to be awarded votes toward becoming a major political party’s presidential nominee. She refused to join the League of Women Voters since she felt political issues should be left to local control. In 1923 she ran unsuccessfully for the Kentucky state Senate. She also helped with the campaign to repeal the 18th Amendment despite her past support of the temperance movement. Meanwhile, she led a group of women from Christ Church in Lexington to win the right to serve in leadership roles in the Episcopal Church

Clay believed that the power to change old customs should come from local and state levels, not a federal amendment. Many other political theorists agreed with her (see for example Henry St. George Tucker's lecture in 1916 - found in Section VII, no. 380 in the NAWSA Collection in the Library of Congress). However, Laura Clay had lost many friends from her earlier activism days with her idealistic stance during this crucial time in U.S. history.

Laura Clay lived the last years of her life out of the spotlight. She continued to manage her leased part of her father’s farm while she lived in Lexington - her home was at the corner of Second and Mill Streets (see the digital map entry on the Kentucky "Votes for Women" Trail here). She died at ninety-two, and her obituary can be found in The New York Times, 30 June 1941. 

*** Resources ***

Fuller, Paul E. Laura Clay and the Woman's Rights Movement. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975.

Laura Clay Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. Edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler. Troutdale, OR: New Sage Press, 1995.

Smith, Mary Jane Smith. "Laura Clay (1849-1941): States' Rights and Southern Suffrage Reform," 119-139 in Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times. Edited by Melissa A. McEuen and Thomas H. Appleton Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

N.B. This post contributes to the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project list of suffrage history Biosketches.