walk of fame recipient Plaque 2

Laura Clay

  • Born February 9, 1849, at White Hall, near Richmond, Kentucky, the daughter of emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay and Mary Jane Warfield Clay.
  • Graduated from Lexington’s Sayre School in 1865; attended Hoffman’s Finishing School in New York, the University of Michigan, and the University of Kentucky.
  • Managed a 300-acre farm in Madison County to support herself and her work for women’s rights.
  • Embraced the cause of women’s rights as her life’s work after the1878 divorce of her parents left her mother without a stake in White Hall, which she had run for years in her husband’s absence.
  • Founded the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) in 1888 and served as its president until 1912.
  • Achieved in 1890s through the lobbying efforts of KERA several laws improving the legal rights of women.
  • Served as an officer in the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
  • Served as auditor of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and campaigned for woman suffrage across the country, becoming one of the best-known southern suffragists.
  • Became vice president of a new organization called the Southern States Women Suffrage Association in 1916.
  • Withdrew from NAWSA and KERA in 1919 in opposition to a federal suffrage amendment.
  • Opposed the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prevented state and federal governments from denying a citizen the right to vote “on account of sex.”
  • Helped organize the Democratic Women’s Club of Kentucky and supported women’s rights in the Episcopal church.
  • Became in 1920 the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president of the United States at a major political party’s convention.
  • Died on June 29, 1941, and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery.

Biography of Laura Clay

Laura Clay was born February 9, 1849, at White Hall estate near Richmond Kentucky, the daughter of emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay and Mary Jane Warfield Clay. Laura graduated from Lexington’s Sayre School in 1865. She also attended Hoffman’s Finishing School in New York, the University of Michigan, and the University of Kentucky.

Laura was parented in large part by her mother, as her father was absent much of the time while pursuing his career. In 1878 after forty-five years of marriage, Cassius and Mary Jane divorced.   Although Mary Jane had managed White Hall in her husband’s absence, she was left with no share in the property. Witnessing this injustice led Laura to a lifelong support of women’s rights and probably explains why she never married. She and her sisters—Mary Barr Clay, Annie Clay, and Sallie Clay—all became supporters of the woman suffrage movement.

Laura became financially independent through the management of a 300-acre farm in Madison County that she leased from her father and later owned after his death.  She spent much of her income in support of women’s rights.

            In 1888 Clay founded the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) and served as its president until 1912. During its first decade KERA achieved a number of legislative victories, successfully lobbying the Kentucky General Assembly for laws granting married women the right to control their own property and wages, the right of co-guardianship of minor children, requiring female physicians in state female insane asylums, and admitting women to several state colleges and universities. In 1912 KERA successfully lobbied for a law allowing women to vote in school elections.

Laura Clay also served as an officer in the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and used these organizations to further women’s rights. As a member of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), she campaigned for suffrage in Oregon, Oklahoma, and Arizona.  During the 1890s she became one of the leading suffragists in the South and helped found nine suffrage societies in southern states.  For fifteen years she served as auditor of NAWSA.  In 1916 she became vice president of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Association, which was dedicated to winning woman suffrage only by state constitutional amendment.  Meanwhile, she continued to support NAWSA, but as it increasingly advocated an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, she became estranged from the organization and withdrew in 1919.  A strong advocate of states’ rights, she likewise withdrew from KERA after its board endorsed the federal amendment, which provided that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any States on account of sex” and gave Congress the “power, by appropriate legislation, to enforce the provision of this article.” Ironically, she then turned her energies toward defeating the federal amendment, arguing that it would provide Congress with the opportunity to intervene in state elections for purely political purposes.

After the suffrage amendment’s ratification as the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Laura continued her pursuit of women’s rights by helping to organize the Democratic Women’s Club of Kentucky in 1920. That year she also became the first woman in history to have her name placed in nomination for president of the United States by a major political party. She ran unsuccessfully for the state senate in 1923 and in 1928 made speeches on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee, Alfred E. Smith, vigorously denouncing national prohibition.  When Kentucky voted for repeal of prohibition in 1933, she served as temporary chair of the ratifying convention.  She carried her belief in women’s rights into her church associations, helping women win the right to serve in the vestry and synod of the Episcopal church.

Clay disappeared from the public scene in the 1930s to live the rest of her life in privacy. She died on June 29, 1941, and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery.

Laura Clay Links

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Clay
http://www.kdla.ky.gov/resources/kylauraclay.htm
http://www.womeninkentucky.com/site/reform/l_clay.html
http://parks.ky.gov/findparks/histparks/wh/
http://www.womeninkentucky.com/images/women/clay/Clay_portrait.jpg
http://www.nwhm.org/RightsforWomen/images/ClaycropLOC.jpg
http://library.louisville.edu/ekstrom/special/suffrage/86_01screen.jpg
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/
http://books.google.com/

Laura Clay Suggested Reading

Fuller, Paul E. Laura Clay and the Women’s Rights Movement. University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, 1975.

Kleber, John E., editor. The Kentucky Encyclopedia. 2d ed. University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, 1992.