Legislative Update - August 8th, 2020
This month, our nation is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment, a civil rights milestone that granted women the right to vote.
The last major step of that decades-long journey arrived on August 18, 1920, in Nashville, where Tennessee’s legislature became the 36th and final state needed to make the Amendment the law of the land.
Its success there was initially in doubt, however, because our southern neighbor’s House of Representatives appeared to be hopelessly deadlocked. That didn’t change until a 24-year-old legislator switched his vote after his mother had urged him to “be a good boy.” Eight days later, President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State officially certified the Amendment’s placement in our country’s constitution.
In the years before and after that date, Kentucky played a sizable role in the women’s suffrage movement. Our General Assembly, for example, voted for the 19th Amendment on the very first day it met in January 1920, and it later adopted a law to ensure women in the commonwealth would be able to vote in that year’s presidential election should the ratification process not be complete by then.
Long before that time, back in 1838, Kentucky became the second state in the nation to grant at least some voting rights for women. New Jersey was first – its constitution made it possible for women to vote starting in 1776 – but that state rescinded the right in 1807. In Kentucky’s case, the only women who could vote were those who owned property and were single, and they were limited to just school-related elections.
In the late 1800s, that same right to help decide education matters was extended to women living in Lexington, Newport and Covington, but the legislature regrettably reversed that law in 1902. It wasn’t restored until a decade later, and only then with the addition of a literacy test designed to keep many, especially minorities, from being able to take part.
There are several Kentuckians who deserve wider recognition for their work to bring voting equality to women. Three of the more prominent were Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and Laura Clay – both of whom were closely related to Henry Clay and noted abolitionist Cassius Clay – and Cora Wilson Stewart Breckinridge helped lead the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was influential in the 19th Amendment’s passage in Kentucky. She passed away just days after seeing women vote in the 1920 presidential election, and newspapers called her Kentucky’s “most distinguished woman citizen.”
Laura Clay and Cora Wilson Stewart, meanwhile, were the first two women to have their names submitted for consideration as a presidential nominee during a major political party’s convention. Another Kentuckian who played a significant role in the pursuit of women’s equality was John D. White, a Louisville congressman who led the way in creating the U.S. House Select Committee on Women Suffrage in 1882, nearly 40 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. That committee was the first in Congress to give a woman’s suffrage bill a favorable vote.
In the years after the 1920 ratification, Kentucky women continued to blaze a path in government. In 1921, Boyd County’s Mary Elliott Flanery became the first woman in Kentucky – and the first in the South – to be elected to a state legislature, and more than 60 years later, Martha Layne Collins became the seventh woman, and second in the South, to be elected governor when she took that office here in 1983.
Last week, Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman announced that the Capitol would become home to the first statue of a woman. It will portray Nettie Depp, a leading educator in southcentral Kentucky in the early 1900s and also the great-great aunt of actor Johnny Depp. Her statue will be dedicated on the west side of the state Capitol a year from now.
There is a growing movement to have another woman represented in the Capitol, now that the statue of Jefferson Davis has been removed from the Rotunda. Earlier this summer, the women of the House Democratic Caucus sent a letter to Governor Beshear requesting he make that goal a reality.
We have come a long way over the past century, but challenges remain as we strive to have more women in elected office and leading our economy. As we take on this challenge, though, it is good for us to remember the words of arguably the most famous advocate for women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony, who said, “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”
If you have any questions or comments about this or any other issue affecting Kentucky, please let me know. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the toll-free message line for the General Assembly is 1-800-372-7181.
Thanks for all you do and holler anytime.