Lexington has many statues of men and horses — and even a bronze sidewalk plaque memorializing a dog. But, as reporter Beth Musgrave wrote recently, there seem to be no public statues of notable women.
That’s a shame, because there are many women from Lexington who have accomplished important things and should be honored and remembered.
Here’s my list to get the conversation started:
Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882). She may be Lexington’s most famous woman, thanks to her marriage to Abraham Lincoln. Her girlhood home on Main Street is a museum. But she often gets a bum rap as a crazy woman, both because of her hot temper and the fact that her son tried unsuccessfully to have her committed late in life. Lincoln was intelligent, cultured, well-educated, politically savvy and unwilling to put up with nonsense from men. She was a strong woman who endured more tragedy than most of us could imagine.
Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1872-1920) became a national leader in the fight for women’s suffrage and social reform. The most influential Kentucky woman of her era, her work included lobbying for compulsory school attendance, better health care and creation of the juvenile justice system. She fought for public parks and against child labor. She was a persuasive writer. Her most famous line, in a letter to a governor who was against women voting: “Kentucky women are not idiots, even though they are closely related to Kentucky men.”
Sophonisba Breckinridge (1866-1948), Madeline’s sister-in-law, was a nationally known social scientist, reformer, economist, women’s rights activist, educator and diplomat. She was the first woman to earn a law degree and Ph.D. in political science and economics from the University of Chicago and was the first woman admitted to the Kentucky bar. Breckinridge led the creation of the academic field of social work. She authored several influential books on social science. A civil rights activist, she was an early member of the NAACP.
Laura Clay (1849-1941) and Mary Barr Clay (1839-1924), daughters of the fiery emancipationist Cassius M. Clay, became national leaders in the women’s rights movement, working for both suffrage and laws protecting women’s property rights. Mary was elected president of the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1883. At the 1920 Democratic National Convention, Laura became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president at a major party’s convention.
Mary Ellen Britton (1855-1925) was a teacher, journalist, activist and physician. Educated at Berea College, in 1902 she became the first black woman physician licensed in Lexington. She was an outspoken crusader for women’s rights and civil rights. She was president of the Lexington Women’s Improvement Club, an original member of the Kentucky Negro Education Association and helped start the Colored Orphan Industrial Home. She openly challenged segregation by writing newspaper columns, testifying before the Kentucky General Assembly and confronting white supremacists at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Audrey Louise Grevious (1930-2017) was a teacher, school principal and civil rights leader in Lexington. Educated in Lexington’s segregated black schools and at Kentucky State University, she became president of the Lexington NAACP and vice president of the Congress on Racial Equality. She led protests to desegregate Lexington businesses before civil rights laws were enacted, and she worked closely with Lexington Police Chief E.C. Hale to keep those protests peaceful.
Julia Amanda Perry (1924-1979) became one of the first American black women to distinguish herself as a composer and conductor of neoclassical music. She studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and in Italy on two Guggenheim Fellowships. She wrote orchestral, choral and opera music and taught music at Atlanta University and Florida A&M. She conducted many orchestras, and her work was performed by the New York Philharmonic and other major orchestras.
My initial list includes only deceased women, and those whose accomplishments were more noble than notorious. Other suggestions?