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Brief Information about Kentucky and Women's Suffrage
Kentucky was on the forefront of the movement for women’s suffrage, not just in the South but in the nation.
Women who were heads of households and taxpayers won the right to vote on tax and education issues in rural areas of Kentucky in 1838, ten years before the Seneca Falls Convention.
That makes Kentucky the first place anywhere in the country where women could participate in the electoral process since New Jersey revoked women’s access to the ballot in 1807.
In 1894, women won school suffrage in Lexington, Covington, and Newport.
The Kentucky legislature reversed itself in 1902 and took away this limited suffrage over fears that African American women voters would support Republican candidates for school board.
After a concentrated lobbying campaign by the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, women in these cities won school suffrage back in 1912 but with an added literacy test for women voters.
Like literacy tests instituted in other states and municipalities around the country, the added requirement was designed to exclude Black voters.
Women in Kentucky were active in organizing for woman suffrage.
Virginia Penny of Louisville became Vice President of the American Equal Rights Association in 1867.
That same year, women in Glendale organized a local suffrage association, the first in the South. More followed in the 1870s.
Mary Barr Clay of Richmond served as vice-president of both the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), the two national suffrage organizations.
Daughter of abolitionist Cassius M. Clay, Mary helped bring the AWSA Annual Convention to Louisville in 1881, the first national suffrage convention held south of the Mason-Dixon line. She served as AWSA president from 1883-84.
Mary’s younger sister Laura Clay founded the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association which was the first state-wide suffrage organization in the South. Laura was also involved in leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Kentucky Equal Rights Association.
The Clay sisters also joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) when the two national organizations united in 1890. In 1913, Laura Clay became Vice President of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, founded by Kate Gordon, to coordinate efforts across the South to win the vote in the states.