Author: Kirkley, Evelyn A.
Title: "'This Work Is God's Cause': Religion in the Southern Woman Suffrage Movement, 1880-1920."
Publication: Church History 59 (Dec 1990): 507-522. [Published online in 2009 by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History]
Annotation: The author, Evelyn A. Kirkley, is a professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego. She continued with her work in this area with a book (published in 2000): Rational Mothers and Infidel Gentlemen, which looks at gender portrayed by organized atheists and agnostics in the late 19th century.
When she was preparing this article, many of the Southern women's history we rely on today were not yet published. And, the Laura Clay papers at the University of Kentucky were not yet fully catalogued - leaving her to rely mostly on Professor Paul Fuller's work from the 1960s. If she had been able to access those amazingly rich resources, she might have seen evidence of more demonstrably religious affiliations among Clay's letters to and from many Southern women. And, much of the Breckinridge information that Melba Porter Hay used for her biography was still relatively unknown. So, we might want to re-visit her thesis that Southern women suffrage leaders “were not particularly motivated by their religious convictions in the woman suffrage movement (514).” Kirkley gives Caroline Merrick of LA as the example for this – theorizing that Merrick was “motivated by a commitment to justice rather than a commitment to Jesus (515).” She also states that some Southern suffragists “weakened their connection to the church (515)” as they worked on the suffrage campaign. This was may have been true of those Southern women who were educated out of state in this time period since freethinkers and socialists could offer a stronger call for many than the conservative “Lost Cause” memorial work about their men and the terrifying sermons of chaos (portrayed as coming from carpetbaggers, freed blacks and scalawags) that pounded from pulpits in many southern churches in this era.
Kirkley is more convincing on page 516 with her 3rd group of Southern women who experienced a “closer relationship between their religious beliefs and suffrage activity.” This theory explains much about the easy connections Southern women made between suffrage, anti-poverty efforts and missionary work, settlement work, animal rights, open-air education efforts (playgrounds, parks), and temperance. (See reference to Frances Willard, temperance leader, on page 517 and thereafter). It’s as if Kirkley changes her mind about her thesis by the time she gets to her concluding paragraphs in section 4.
Here’s the list of Southern suffrage leaders that she focused on in researching for this article: The Methodists were Sue White (Tenn.), Caroline Merrick (La.), Belle Kearney (Miss.), Gertrude Thomas (Ga.), and during her childhood, at least, Elizabeth Meriwether (Tenn.). The Episcopalians were Laura Clay (Ky.), Madeline Breckinridge (Ky.), and Virginia Clay-Clopton (Ala.). Kate Gordon (La.) was a Unitarian, Martha Schofield (S.C.) was a Quaker, Pattie Jacobs (Ala.) Presbyterian, and Elsie Riddick (N.C.) Baptist.
It would be interesting to explore again this thesis with the religious convictions expressed by Southern black suffragists, Southern Jewish women activists and women who were practicing in the Catholic faith. And, did you know that we had here in Kentucky at Pleasant Hill a Shaker woman leader, Sister Mary Settles, who spoke out in favor of woman suffrage? I think it is not at all coincidental that Mary Britton published her suffragist speech in a Catholic newspaper and that Lucy Wilmot Smith contributed to African-American newspapers separately from the white-centric Southern Baptist Western Reporter. (See more on the Southern Baptist anti-suffragist editors in blog posts by Joanna Lile, 24 Dec 2016 and 31 Dec 2016.) The wide array of religious affiliations in the South makes this a tempting but very big project!
This entry is part of the Secondary Sources list in the Annotated Bibliography for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project.