The Nineteenth Amendment's Kentucky Roots

In the 1920s, many Kentuckians were living rather rural and agrarian lives. The Commonwealth was the nation's top producer of tobacco, while Eastern Kentucky coal camp towns were transforming the Appalachian economy in response to a growing demand for coal-fired energy. The Bluegrass State's biggest cities were headed in exciting new directions: empowered by electric streetcars, Lexington expanded to include the Ashland and Bell Court suburbs, while Louisville would soon establish itself as a Prohibition-era playground for flappers, bootleggers, and even a gangster or two. 

But did you know that 1920s Kentucky was important to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote?

Kentucky's Voting Rights Champion, Laura Clay

The issue of women's suffrage has an interesting history in Kentucky. As early as the 1830s, some Kentucky women were allowed to vote in school board elections.  The Women's Suffrage movement in Kentucky was championed by Laura Clay and her sister Mary Barr Clay, the daughters of famed abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. The Clay sisters became fervent women's right advocates when their parents' divorce left their mother homeless and without agency. Laura's work was so tireless and far-reaching that she even became the first woman to be nominated for President by a major political party. Her work as founder of the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association focused not only on the right to vote, but also on women's rights to property ownership and financial agency.

Soon, women's rights leaders like Laura Clay found their hard work being rewarded as national support of suffrage movements took hold.

"KY Governor Edwin P. Morrow signing the Anthony Amendment,” 1920. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-78691.

On the first day of the 1920 Kentucky General Assembly, Kentucky ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by a margin of 72 to 25 in the House and 30 to 8 in the Senate. Less than a  month after taking office, on January 6, 1920, Governor Edwin P. Morrow, a Somerset-born Republican and former U.S. Attorney, signed the Bill into law. Kentucky was one of only four Southern states to approve the amendment, which went into effect after Tennessee followed suit in August of that year. The 19th Amendment was incorporated into the Constitution on August 26, 1920.

Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, a Louisville native

As with all revolutionary legislation, the 19th Amendment was met with immediate litigation. In Leser v. Garnett, 258 U.S. 130 (1922), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the amendment's validity. The legal opinion, written by Louisville native Louis D. Brandeis, found that the amendment was properly ratified by the states and was, therefore, legally adopted.

Today we celebrate the ninety-sixth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and thank forward-thinking Kentuckians like Laura Clay, Mary Barr Clay, Edwin P. Morrow, and Louis Brandeis for helping ensure the voting rights of Kentucky women. Thanks to these and other brave Kentuckians who have ensured freedoms and equal rights for Kentucky's women!