Today is the 85th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. It is also Women's Equality Day, so designated by Congress, to commemorate passage of the 19th Amendment.
With all its symbols and semantics, the 19th Amendment stands as a beacon in the timeline of American history. Without the firm foundation set by Kentucky's suffrage leaders, Laura Clay and Madeline Breckinridge, Kentucky might never have passed the amendment. Clay, still playing contract bridge at 91, and Breckinridge, battling tuberculosis, commanded respect by virtue of their fabled Kentucky families. Both believed that voting would enable women to solidify economic and social changes of the Progressive movement. Both were club leaders around Lexington before suffrage ignited their passions. They helped secure rights of Kentucky women to enter male-only colleges, own property, make wills and contracts and have custody of children.
But they brought strong, opposing viewpoints on how to gain suffrage. Breckinridge became convinced that the federal amendment passed state-by-state was the only way to guarantee success. Clay was a Jeffersonian states' rightist who believed that each state should enact its laws rather than be mandated by the federal government, and she openly attacked the federal amendment. Sometimes we forget her life-long contributions because she chose the wrong side of suffrage.
Their vocal sentiments were often witty. In a letter to Gov. James McCreary, Breckinridge pointed out that Kentucky women are not idiots - even though they are closely related to Kentucky men.
But first, consider what happened in Louisville. Initially, women probably discussed suffrage in 1853, when abolitionist and suffrage leader Lucy Stone delivered three lectures. In 1872, Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke at the old Masonic Temple, saying "women will yet vote … I do not intend to go to heaven disenfranchised."
Along the timeline are club leaders in social reforms. Acting for the Kentucky Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Alice E. Nugent wrote a song that captured the volunteer spirits:
That they are willing to leave
To do with eagerness
What they might do.
Susan Avery, founder of Louisville Woman's Club in 1890, worked out of her Fourth Street parlor converting members to suffrage work. On South first Street, Caroline Leech reached across club lines gaining endorsement from the Women's Christian Temperance Union, hoping women would vote to restrict alcohol for its abuse within the home. Club leadership taught women writing, speaking and organizing skills, which they parlayed into public displays and discourse to gain suffrage.
Dr. Linda Lumsden, an associate professor of journalism at Western Kentucky University, wrote in her book, "Rampant Women: Suffragists and the Right of Assembly," "Virtually the entire suffrage story can be told through the prism of the right of assembly." Suffrage conventions brought scores of women together branding the campaign with gold-and-purple buttons, banners, hats, stockings and symbolic yellow roses. But by 1913, Alice Paul had taken the National Woman's Party down a more aggressive path. Huge parades (who can forget the famous picture of striking Inez Mulholland astride a white horse as parade marshal?) were followed by steadily more aggressive tactics of women picketing and chaining themselves to the White House gates. Suffrage parades, marches, canvassing, open-air meetings took women out of their parlors into the streets, forcing the public to think about them. Lunsden is on to something important.
Publicly, Kentucky's suffrage characters became increasingly bold. In 1914, Clay and Breckinridge were the first women to address a joint session of the Kentucky legislature. That suffrage bill was soundly defeated, but Clay and Breckinridge never gave up. During 1919, Clay and Breckinridge conducted very public debates with each other in Lexington's Herald newspaper. Day after day their letters to the editor (who happened to be Breckinridge's husband) argued divergent positions and inevitably about the race question. Although Clay protested accusations of being racist, her stand never afforded much protection to blacks in Southern states that already failed to protect their basic rights. States' rightists saw the protentional to enact qualifications restricting suffrage to white women.
Controversial to the end, Clay never relinquished her position, and it severed their suffrage partnership.
Finally, on June 6, 1920, the General Assembly passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and Kentucky became the 24th state to ratify the federal amendment. That was the end of a great debate between two irrepressible Kentucky Women who had devoted their lives to suffrage.
Honor them by celebrating today.
Eugenia K. Potter is the author of "Kentucky Women." She is a former executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women.