A century ago, Lexington women were national leaders in the movement to secure civil rights for women, including the 19th Amendment giving them the right to vote. But there are no statues, monuments or plaques in town to honor them.
In fact, while Lexington has many monuments to men and horses — and even a dog and a camel — I know of only one significant statue honoring a woman. A bronze Catherine Spalding (1793-1858), founder of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, sits outside KentuckyOne Health St. Joseph Hospital.
A non-profit group called Breaking the Bronze Ceiling hopes to change that.
The group — whose leaders include Urban County Council members Jennifer Mossotti, Kathy Plomin and Angela Evans — is raising money for a monument to the history of women in Fayette County to be placed in a prominent downtown location during 2020, the centennial of 19th Amendment’s ratification.
The group’s first public fundraiser is Aug. 27 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main Street There will be a showing of the 2015 movie “Suffragette,” a drama set during Britain’s suffrage movement, starring Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the movie will begin at 7 p.m.
The Suffrage Choir of Central Kentucky will perform, and Mayor Jim Gray will issue a proclamation. The League of Women Voters will be there, registering people to vote. The event is free, but donations to Breaking the Bronze Ceiling are encouraged.
The group began in March trying to raise $500,000. So far, more than $40,000 in private donations have been collected, plus a $100,000 city grant from Gray. (Donations may be made through the Blue Grass Community Foundation at Bluegrass.kimbia.com/btbc.)
“It hasn’t been a hard sell,” Plomin said of the fundraising effort. “And we have just started approaching corporations and foundations.”
A similar effort is under way in Louisville, and a monument honoring Tennessee suffrage leaders was unveiled two years ago in Nashville. “Momentum has been gaining around the country with the centennial coming up,” Mossotti said. “The #MeToo movement has certainly helped.”
The Lexington monument’s design hasn’t been determined. Mossotti said once enough money is raised, the group will seek proposals from artists.
Three national leaders of the suffrage movement called Lexington home: Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1872-1920) and sisters Laura Clay (1849) and Mary Barr Clay (1839-1924).
Other notable women’s rights activists from Lexington include Mary Ellen Britton (1855-1925), a teacher, journalist and the first black woman to be licensed as a physician in Lexington; Audrey Grevious (1930-2017), an educator and civil rights activist; and Sophonisba Breckinridge (1866-1948), an academic, social reformer and diplomat.
Separately, Lexington sculptor Amanda Matthews began focusing on this issue several years ago, starting the Artemis Initiative to raise money for public sculptures of women. Her figurative bronze “Katsina the Sacred Dancer” was unveiled on Mother’s Day at the Women’s Recognition Garden in Wellington Park.
Matthews’ statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, a Kentuckian who in the late 1940s became the first black woman issued press credentials to cover the White House and Congress, goes on display Sept. 21 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. In December, it will be permanently installed in Russellville, Dunnigan’s hometown.
Matthews also is working on a statue of Nettie Depp, one of the first women to run for public office in Kentucky, which is to be placed in the state Capitol. Depp — a great-great aunt of both Matthews and actor Johnny Depp — was elected Barren County’s school superintendent in 1913, seven years before women could vote.
Kentucky has only a few public statues of notable women. Among them: Alice Lloyd, on the Knott County campus of the college named for her; riverboat pilot Mary B. Greene on the Riverwalk in Covington; Mary Draper Ingles, a pioneer woman who escaped Native American captivity, outside the Boone County Public Library in Burlington; and educator Elizabeth Rogers in a Berea park. Another statue of Spalding was erected at Louisville’s Cathedral of the Assumption in 2015.
“We’re over 50 percent of the population and what do we have to mark our achievements?” Mossotti said. “What kind of message does that send to little girls — and boys?”