Tom Eblen

Meet the Kentuckians who led the fight for women’s rights a century ago

A front-page photo of the May 7, 1916 Lexington Herald shows suffragists marching down Lexington's Main Street the day before. In the background is the then-new First National Building, now 21C Museum Hotel.
A front-page photo of the May 7, 1916 Lexington Herald shows suffragists marching down Lexington's Main Street the day before. In the background is the then-new First National Building, now 21C Museum Hotel. Lexington Herald

It’s hard to live in Lexington long without learning something about Henry Clay, the 19th century statesman, and Cassius Marcellus Clay, the colorful anti-slavery activist.

But you may not know this: When American women were demanding equal rights in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Clay cousins’ female descendants were leading the charge.

They and other Kentucky women made Lexington a focus of the early women’s rights movement. They organized marches demanding the vote and brought to town such national figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Belva Ann Lockwood, the second woman to run for president and to be licensed to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the nation marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote in 1920, University of Kentucky historian Randolph Hollingsworth and others are trying to get a head start.

Hollingsworth is building an online database (networks.h-net.org/h-kentucky) of information about the suffrage movement in Kentucky. Some of that history will be on display July 21 during Gallery Hop, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m., at the Lexington History Museum offices in suite 312 of The Square, 401 West Main Street. Hollingsworth will speak July 30 at 3 p.m. at the Lexington Public Library’s Tates Creek Branch.

“We’re trying to get on the front end of presenting this historical conversation,” said Foster Ockerman, the Lexington History Museum’s president.

Kentucky passed the nation’s first statewide women’s suffrage law in 1838. But it only allowed female heads-of-household to vote in elections involving taxes and schools. After the Civil War, the 14th and 15th amendments granted the vote to black men — at least legally — but women were still left without a voice in government.

Women also lost property rights to their husbands when they married or divorced. So when Cassius Clay and his wife, Mary Jane Warfield, divorced in 1878, she lost legal custody of her own children and had no right to share in the profits of the farm she had successfully managed during his years-long absences.

That injustice helped inspire their four daughters to become women’s rights crusaders. Sallie and Anne, the middle daughters, helped start Kentucky’s first permanent suffrage organization. Mary Barr Clay, the eldest, organized the Fayette County Equal Rights Association and later became president of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Laura Clay, the youngest, headed the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association and became a national figure.

At the 1920 Democratic National Convention, Laura Clay became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major party.

Perhaps the most influential Kentucky suffragist was the Clay sisters’ distant cousin, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge. She also became a well-known progressive reformer, tackling a variety of issues including child labor, juvenile justice, parks and schools.

She was Henry Clay’s great-granddaughter and the wife of Desha Breckinridge, editor and publisher of the Lexington Herald. She was a powerful writer who wasn’t afraid of anyone.

“Kentucky women are not idiots,” she wrote in a famous retort to Gov. James McCreary in 1915, “even though they are closely related to Kentucky men.”

By 1894, activists succeeded in changing state law to protect women’s property rights. But Hollingsworth thinks the Clays’ activism was more than a response to injustice; it was a reflection of their community and upbringing.

“The women of these families are encouraged to educate themselves to address the current politics of the day, even as children,” she said. “It’s a very politically infused environment and these women are very comfortable in these settings. Early on, Lexington was seen as an experiment in a lot of things.”

But Lexington also had a deep regressive streak. In the years following the Civil War, racism and violence were rampant, making it a hostile place to pursue equal rights.

In 1894, Kentucky gave women the right to vote in school board elections in the state’s second-class cities: Lexington, Covington and Newport. In elections the following year, 2,000 Lexington women voted and four were elected to the Board of Education.

But there was a backlash after black women organized to oust Green P. Russell as principal of the black school because he was trying to change its classical curriculum to a more vocational approach to appease white Lexington leaders.

After politicians complained that “illiterates” and “prostitutes” had overwhelmed the women’s voting booths, the General Assembly repealed this limited form of suffrage. That didn’t change until 1912, when women were given the vote in school board elections statewide so long as they passed a “literacy” test.

From then on, Kentucky’s women activists focused on universal suffrage. The movement included both white and black women, although they rarely worked together. Lexington’s influential black suffragists included Lucy Wilmot Smith and Mary Ellen Britton, a powerful speaker who became the city’s first licensed black woman physician.

“This history is a lesson about why the vote matters and where does the authority for voting rights reside,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s an issue that’s still not entirely settled.”

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