Woman Suffrage Amendment Effort Loses in Kentucky General Assembly

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

On March 12, 1914, the Kentucky General Assembly almost passed, but eventually defeated, a bill to send a woman suffrage amendment to the people of the Commonwealth for a referendum vote. Even though women of Kentucky had won partial suffrage in 1912 (voting in school related elections), many county clerks resisted allowing women to register and vote. The Kentucky Equal Rights Association, led by Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (who was simultaneously serving as a vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association), took up a strong campaign to lobby the General Assembly for better enforcement of the 1912 partial suffrage rights and to amend the Kentucky constitution for full suffrage rights for women.

Breckinridge invited members of the General Assembly to attend a speech she gave in the lobby of the Capitol Hotel on January 7, 1914. This encouraged them to invite both Breckinridge and Laura Clay to speak before the legislature in a joint session in the House of Representatives at noon on January 15th – the motion by Rep. J. Guthrie Coke (of Logan County) was adopted over a resolution inviting them to speak at 8 p.m. on the 19th instead. This was considered the first time a woman had addressed a joint session, and women from all over central Kentucky came to watch. Breckinridge spoke again on January 21st at the Capitol Hotel, this time with the Nevada suffragist Anne H. Martin. Historian Melba Hay points out that about four hundred attended this speech before Martin went on to give a suffrage speech at the Fayette County Courthouse in Lexington.

Nevertheless, the anti-suffragist effort came out strong: H.B. 2 was filed to repeal the act permitting women to vote in school elections; H.B. 455 tried to “prevent negroes from voting in elections of white school trustees;” H.B. 404 to amend the 1912 act so that “only women who can read and write may vote in school elections;” and, when H.B. 2 looked to go down in committee, H.B. 629 was put forward by Woodford County’s representative George T. Davis (who was on the Committee on Equal Suffrage), an act to repeal the act qualifying women to vote for the election of school trustees and other school officers. These all failed and instead, the H.B. 76 amendment to the 1912 school suffrage law passed in both houses, adding a Section 17 that enforced the duty of county clerks to allow women to vote in primary elections where school officers are up for election.

The more ambitious bill - to amend the Kentucky Constitution so as to grant equal suffrage to women – got out of committee in both houses. It had been presented by Senator J. H. Durham of Franklin County where it had come out of committee favorably and placed on the calendar for a vote. In the House of Representatives, John G. Miller of Paducah (a Democrat) shepherded it favorably out of the House Committee of Equal Suffrage, but on the floor it took a beating:

  • Frank C. Greene (1875-1941) on the Committee on Constitutional Amendment – representing Carroll and Gallatin Counties – proposed to add a section: “All wives failing to vote as their husbands vote shall be denied further right to vote for a period of five years.” That amendment was defeated.
  • Matt Savage Walton (1882-1959) – representing Fayette County’s Lexington city district – proposed to amend the constitution to express that those who could not vote would include “female persons who are unable to read and write the Constitution of the United States and explain a section thereof.” It was defeated.
  • Dr. Samuel L. Henry (1852-1923) – representing Union County – then moved that the bill be tabled but did not get the votes.
  • John C. Lay (1881-1967) – representing Whitley and Knox Counties – offered an amendment: “No one but mothers shall be entitled to vote – old maids not excepted.” This also lost.
  • Griffin Kelly (1869-1952) – representing Daviess County’s 1st district – tried again to restrict woman suffrage only to mothers, but his amendment was defeated.

They called the question to halt the stream of amendments, read the bill the third and final time. Finally, House Bill 221 was defeated 52 to 29, and the bill was not considered again in the Senate that session either as a result.

*** Resources ***

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, “Kentucky,” The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. VI, ed. Ida Husted Harper (NAWSA, 1922): 210-211.

“H.B. 76 amendment,” Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ... Sess. 122, v. 2 (1914). HatiTrust. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433004439414?urlappend=%3Bseq=996

“H. B. 221, An Act to amend section 145 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Journal of the House, v. 2. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433004439414?urlappend=%3Bseq=662

Melba Porter Hay, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009): 171-173.

“Resolution to invite Miss Laura Clay and Mrs. Desha Breckinridge…, “ Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ... Sess. 122, v. 1 (1914). HathiTrust. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433004439646?urlappend=%3Bseq=184.

N.B. This post supports the further development of a timeline of the Kentucky suffrage movement on behalf of the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project. To see this entry within the timeline, go to https://networks.h-net.org/kentucky-woman-suffrage-timeline.