2020 marks 100 years since the passage of the 19th amendment, which prohibited government regulation that would deny any U.S. citizen the right to vote on the basis of sex. This was a huge step toward the enfranchisement of all American women, and was the result of the tireless efforts by suffragists over many decades.
A new historical installation, the National Votes for Women Trail, recognizes many of those dedicated individuals, and several of the first markers recognize Kentucky women.
The first marker dedicated was for Susan Look Avery, the founder of the Louisville Women’s Suffrage Association and the Woman’s Club of Louisville.
The second marker went up in Danville for Lexington’s Dr. Mary Britton, an African American doctor who was the only female physician in Lexington in the late 1800s.
“Britton spoke in Danville at the St. James African American Episcopal Church in 1887, to the Kentucky Colored Teachers Association, on why women should have the right to vote,” says Marsha Weinstein, President of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. “This church, which was built in 1884, was thrilled to know this history. They didn’t know anything about Dr. Mary Britton there, and they just really appreciated that people cared.”
“I was so excited,” says Rev. Ralph Smith, Pastor at St. James AME Church in Danville. “I couldn’t wait to let people know about this history, to know that this young lady, black African American, came and spoke on behalf of women’s suffrage, in that era. It really blew my mind, because back then, a woman – especially a woman of color – was supposed to be quiet. But she, with wisdom, spoke.”
The next marker in Kentucky went up in Richmond for Mary Barr Clay.
“Mary Barr Clay was the oldest daughter of Cassius Clay, and she was brilliant,” says Weinstein. “In 1884, she testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on why women should have the right to vote. I think she was the first woman ever to be allowed to testify before Congress.”
The Trail has state coordinators across the country, and each is in charge of finding and documenting the contributions of individuals to women’s suffrage in their state. Weinstein says that the project is documenting this important component of America’s history in a way that’s never been done before.
“We know the presidents, and the great generals, but we don’t know about this contribution that really added 50% of the population to be full citizens,” says Weinstein. “That is huge, and it’s relevant today in the whole issue of current voting rights. The right to vote is the right with which you gain all other rights, or you lose all other rights.
“My hope is that when people learn this history, they’ll be inspired to be actively engaged in their communities,” Weinstein adds. “And that they’ll want to learn more, and make them really value voting rights and to understand why it’s up to everyone to be engaged. You can’t just depend on other people to take care of you. It’s your responsibility.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2515 which originally aired on February 22, 2020. Watch the full episode.