Kentuckian for Women’s Suffrage
From 1849 till 1920 as the American struggle for women’s rights and especially suffrage – the right to vote – played out, it involved many advocates of both genders and from different parts of the country. Many of these reformers such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and others are well known in history, yet there were many others who were just as dedicated but not so well known. Yet while one of these persons in her time was better known as the daughter of influential Kentucky statesman Cassius Clay, it was actually something her father did that may have inspired Laura Clay to become a suffrage advocate. For after a philandering Clay divorced his faithful wife of 40 plus years it revealed laws that Laura then worked to have changed.
And along the way when she attended the convention of her political party. Where she became the first woman, to have her name placed in nomination, for President of the United States by a major political party.
Born in February, 1849 at her family home White Hall in Kentucky, Laura was the youngest of four girls and two boys. Her mother, Mary Jane Warfield Clay, was from a wealthy Kentucky family and supported both women’s rights and right to female education. Her father was Cassius Marcellus Clay, a Kentucky plantation owner, local politician, later diplomat and (strangely enough) an abolitionist. A personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, Clay was appointed U.S. Minister to Russia [Ambassador] where he is credited as helping gain Russian support for the U.S. during the Civil War.
Because her husband was frequently away from home for political, business or eventually diplomatic matters, Mary Jane was often left alone, and for some years successfully managed the various family properties, as she also raised her large family. During the Civil War Laura attended a girl’s school in Lexington and then went to a finishing school in New York but got no further at that time because her father opposed her advanced education.
From 1865 to 1869 Laura lived at home, assisting her mother in managing the family and the family farms, while her father was American Minister to Russia. However, when he returned home in 1869 he brought with him a small Russian boy who was actually his son, whose mother was a Russian dancer. Mary Jane, who had reportedly frequently experienced her husband’s unfaithfulness, decided she’d had had enough so she moved to Lexington. Subsequently, Clay sued her for divorce with the charge of abandonment. Yet after he won his case he did not pursue legal rights that would have made Mary Jane technically homeless.
Kentucky law at the time, decreed that Clay could have claimed all the property his ex-wife had inherited from her family, and he also could have kept her from seeing her children. However, he did not pursue those claims, so Mary Jane and her unmarried daughters were able to remain on her own farms and lived from that income.
Yet Laura, no longer limited by her father’s input, took advantage of her new freedom to pursue more education. She attended a Michigan school as well as a semester at a Kentucky college.
Laura’s older sisters, Mary Barr, Sallie and Annie were the first family advocates for women’s rights—working with both national organizations for the cause. These were the American woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). In 1881 Laura attended an AWSA convention in Louisville which was the first such event held in the South. After this she and 25 other similarly minded friends formed the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association, which was the first such group in the South, Laura was chosen president.
Then in 1888 nationally known suffragist Lucy Stone visited the Clay family as she attended an AWSA convention in nearby Cincinnati. She invited Laura to attend and then began to mentor Laura into new areas of reform. Also, Laura was then elected president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) an office she held until 1912. She also joined other groups such as Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Club where she persuaded some other fellow members to join the KERA.
She addressed state organizations on the subject of women’s suffrage, and saw the passage of new laws and policies, that further extended women’s rights in Kentucky. Some of the KERA’s lobbying efforts that included new policies—such as protection of married women’s property and wages, having women physicians at state mental hospitals—and also allowing women to attend some all men’s colleges.
The 1890s brought new changes in the movement with the two national groups uniting to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Laura began to establish other societies particularly in the South.
Besides her advocacy and interest in women’s suffrage, Laura joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and—despite her father’s being a Republican—became active in Democratic Party politics.
For some years advocates for women’s suffrage had often taken two approaches—working on a local state level or seeking a national constitutional amendment. Laura favored the first tactic since she believed such a measure should have its basis in local and state laws. She and others who supported the state level work, that this would enable states to retain any restrictions already in place, while a national amendment might overrule these. And in the South, some of these restrictions involved not just the gender, but the race of the voter.
Today we find this idea reprehensible but at the time, particularly in the South, these racial restrictions were very much a part of the local culture. Laura and others felt that only knowledgeable and educated persons (of either race or gender) should vote and this often precluded many as potential voters. Today we have thankfully abandoned this belief but it was a widespread sentiment in the South at the time.
So because they were reluctant to support a federal amendment, Laura and others in 1913 created the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference. Their aim was to press for legislative changes in their states, that would enable white women to vote, but not override restrictions on Black voters
National women’s suffrage came in 1920 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution that banned voter discrimination based on gender. Once this was done, Laura then became involved in the activities of the Democratic Party. That same year in 1920 she founded the Democratic Women’s Club of Kentucky, and then became a delegate to the national party convention. She was well known and prominent enough that at the convention her name was placed in nomination for U.S. president, thus became the first woman to be so nominated. Then in 1923 she was nominated as a Democratic candidate for the Kentucky State Senate, and in 1928 she campaigned for the national candidate Al Smith.
Also about that same time, Laura supported the 21st Amendment, that repealed the liquor bans of the 18th amendment that had established national Prohibition. This despite her being a member of the WCTU and an abstainer.
After 1930 as Laura Clay left the public eye, she continued her advocacies in her Episcopal church, working to allow women delegates to church councils.
Laura spent her final years away from public notice, living in Lexington and continuing to manage some farm property, she leased from her brother. She died in Lexington in 1941 at the age of 92.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.