Caroline Apperson Leech (1850-1929) Louisville Civic Activist and Suffragist

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Caroline Apperson was born in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, in 1850. She was the daughter of Harriet Selman Rogers and Richard Apperson, a circuit court judge in Mount Sterling who during the Civil War strongly supported the Union cause. Caroline was one of four siblings, and her elder brother, Coleman Rogers Apperson, was killed in the Civil War in 1864.  She was educated at Transylvania Female Institute (later Sayre Female Institute) in Lexington, a girls’ school that was founded in 1854 and offered a challenging academic curriculum.  Another alumna was Laura Clay, who would later lead the state’s woman suffrage movement.  After her graduation Caroline Apperson moved to Louisville to live with relatives, and in 1873 married James A. Leech (1843-1919), a banker.  The couple had one daughter, Caroline (called Carolyn), who was born in 1873.

Caroline Leech became committed to woman suffrage very early, probably as a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).  The WCTU, founded in 1874, aimed chiefly to prohibit the sale and use of alcoholic beverages. When Frances Willard became its president in 1879, however, the organization adopted a broad program that addressed the social problems that (in Willard’s view) resulted from alcohol abuse. One of these was the mistreatment of women, for whom the law provided few protections against abuse by drunken fathers and husbands.  Convinced that the Bible supported gender equality and that the enfranchisement of women would benefit mothers and families and purify society as a whole, Willard and the WCTU were among the earliest supporters of woman suffrage.

In the 1880s, Leech was president for a time of the local branch of the Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union and spoke at meetings in Frankfort and Louisville. WCTU programs emphasized both the dignity and the vulnerability of women. For example, in 1883 Leech and her group paid tribute to Willard by singing “God save our gracious queen.” A speaker at another meeting graphically depicted “the awful crime of wife beating.” In 1895, Leech served as a Kentucky delegate to the Annual Convention of the WCTU in Baltimore.  The temperance movement brought her into contact with such women as Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw, who became nationally known suffrage leaders.

Temperance work brought Leech directly into the woman suffrage movement, of which she was among the earliest supporters in Louisville.  The  Equal Rights Association (ERA) was founded by a Louisville woman, Susan Look Avery, in 1889. In 1894 Caroline Leech provided her home as a meeting place for the group, and in 1895 she signed the earliest existing list of members.  At this time, the Courier Journal reported, the members numbered about twenty, and among them were “the most prominent and intelligent women in the community.”  The ERA decided to give priority to school suffrage—that is, the right of women to participate in the election of school boards. Expressing a view of gender difference that was widespread during this era, one member stated that education was a question in which “women were more deeply interested than men.”

The Louisville women worked with the state organization, known as the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, to pass laws that gave women the school franchise, increased economic protections for married women, regulated child labor and established reform schools and juvenile courts. 

Between 1896 and 1910, however, the woman suffrage movement entered a fourteen-year period of “doldrums.” No new states enfranchised women, and many organizations lost energy and support.  Kentucky even took a step backward in 1902 when the law granting women the school suffrage was repealed because African American women had exerted what white legislators considered an unacceptably large impact on school elections. Kentucky suffragists successfully worked to restore school suffrage in 1912, but with a literacy requirement that excluded many African American women.

Leech found an ample field for her reforming energies in Louisville’s many civic organizations. Most of these groups were affiliated at the state level with the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs (KFWC) and on the national level with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC).  From 1907 on, Leech was a leader of the Outdoor Art League, which organized citizens to clean up trash, plant trees and gardens, and set aside land for parks and playgrounds. She became an active member of the Louisville Woman’s Club and the Woman’s City Club, and served several terms as President of the Kentucky Federation.  She led campaigns to improve schools, sanitary conditions, and health services; to eradicate tuberculosis; and to end illiteracy and child labor.

Meanwhile Leech was also among a relatively few women who kept the cause of woman suffrage alive during the “doldrums.” Some fresh energy came to American suffragists from Britain, where Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Calling themselves “suffragettes,” WSPU activists adopted tactics-- massive demonstrations, disruption of political meetings, and destruction of property—that attracted world-wide attention (though often disapproving) to the suffrage cause. 

In 1908, when the British suffragist Ethel Snowden came to speak in Louisville, she stayed with Leech. Snowden, who was a leader of Britain’s moderate suffrage organization, the National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), never endorsed the tactics of the suffragettes, but nonetheless praised their courage and commitment. “It has been the motto of the women seeking suffrage in England to offer themselves to violence,” she explained in a later speech to her Louisville audience, “but not to participate in it.” Snowden’s inspiring presence, Leech reported, “aroused a lively suffrage spirit” among Louisville women, several of whom declared themselves “in full sympathy with such a movement.”

In 1910, a victory in the state of Washington, followed by another in California in 1911, reinvigorated the American suffrage movement. As suffrage organizations gained members and engaged in new forms of activism, Leech worked on both national and state levels. In 1912 she served as Kentucky’s delegate to the annual convention of the National Association of Woman Suffrage Societies in Philadelphia. Until 1913 the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs had taken no stance on suffrage, a controversial issue that divided the membership.  In that year Leech introduced a resolution that endorsed “the principle of woman’s suffrage,” and the resolution was adopted by a majority of members. In the next year, 1914, Leech attended the national convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, where she was chosen to second, and to speak in favor of, a motion to support woman suffrage. She later recalled this as the proudest moment of her life.

In a speech to the Outdoor Art League, which she also persuaded to support woman suffrage, Leech looked back to a dark time when “it was considered a waste of time, money, and energy to give a girl a university education.” Optimistically, she affirmed that “this prejudice has been entirely eliminated.” She urged women to “continue their fight for suffrage until such time as they may have an equal voice in all matters with men throughout the country.”

By 1915, the Equal Rights Association called itself the Louisville Woman Suffrage Association, and both its visibility and membership had greatly increased. Leech served as the Chair of the group’s Constitution and By-Laws Committee and in other responsible positions. As President of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1917, she urged all local clubs to found suffrage committees and offered lectures on a wide variety of topics, from “Civic Duty” to “Women’s Use of Power.”

After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in Kentucky and across the nation, former suffragists often chose either to join a political party or the League of Women Voters (LWV), which continued the non-partisan work of the NAWSA. Leech did both by becoming an officer of the LWV and also chairing the Louisville Republican Women’s Campaign Committee. She worked to get Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover elected.  On most issues apart from women’s rights, Leech was a political conservative, who as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution endorsed that group’s nationalism and xenophobia.

Caroline Apperson Leech had always enjoyed travel, and in 1923, at the age of seventy-three, she set out with her daughter Carolyn on a trip around the world. She died in 1929, at the age of seventy-nine. Her tomb in Cave Hill Cemetery bears this inscription: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith, henceforth--!”


Prepared by Ann Taylor Allen, Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Louisville, for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project.

 

*** Resources ***
Primary Sources:

Louisville Courier-Journal:

            “From Over the State,” Sept. 20, 1883
            “The Crusaders,” Dec. 24, 1883
            “The Temperance Workers,” Dec. 4, 1885
             “Women Want to Vote,” Dec. 11,1994
             “Delightful Meeting,” Sept. 22, 1907
             “Revival of Interest in Woman’s Suffrage,” Nov. 23, 1908
            “No Violence,” Nov.  15, 1909
            “Mrs. Leech Elected President of Women’s Clubs,” January 12,1909
            “Thorough Cleaning Administered City,” April 21,1912
            “English Suffragist Will Visit Here,” May 27, 1913
            “Favors Giving Women Ballot,” June 14, 1913
            “League Urges Persistent Fight for Vote,” May 2, 1914
            “Louisville Woman Aids Suffrage Endorsement,” June 14, 1914
            “Reviews Work in Behalf of the City Beautiful,” November 16, 1915
            “Suffrage Survey is Discussed at Meeting,” Feb. 4, 1917
            “Mrs. James A. Leech,” February 4, 1923
            “D.A.R. Delegates are Warned Against Pacifism in Schools,” March 26, 1928

Richard Apperson, Find a Grave Memorial

Caroline A. Leech, ancestry.com

James A. Leech, ancestry.com

“Caroline Apperson Leech,” in Dictionary of Prominent Women of Louisville and Kentucky, edited by  Bess A. Ray (Louisville: The Louisville Free Public Library, 1940), 147-151.

Caroline Apperson Leech, Find A Grave Memorial

Jane Cunningham Croly, History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America (New York: H. G. Allen & Co., 1898).

Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, Yearbook of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1912-13, 1917, 1919-20.

Louisville Equal Rights Association, Minute Book, 1889-1895 (Manuscript, Filson Historical Society).

“Report of Twenty-Second Annual Meeting, National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Baltimore, 1895,”

The Woman Suffrage Association of Louisville (Brochure, n.d.,Filson Historical Society).

Secondary Sources:

Carol Guethlein, “Women in Louisville: Moving Toward Equal Rights,” The Filson Club History Quarterly, 55, no. 2  (April, 1981): 151-178.

John C. Kleber, Mary Jean Kinsman, Thomas D. Clark, and George E. Yater, eds. Encyclopedia of Louisville (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001).

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