Image from National Women's History Museum
One of the controversial figures in the national women's rights movement, Laura Clay was born at White Hall, her family's estate near Richmond, Kentucky, on February 9, 1849. Her parents were Cassius M. Clay , the noted antislavery activist, and Mary Jane (Warfield) Clay, both of prominent Bluegrass families. Laura Clay was educated at Lexington's Sayre School, where she graduated in 1865. She then spent a year at Miss Hoffman's finishing school in New York City and later studied at the universities of Michigan and Kentucky for short periods. She supported herself and financed her long public career with her income as a "practical farmer," managing a three-hundred-acre farm in Madison County, which she leased from her father in 1873 and owned after his death in 1903.
Clay's commitment to women's rights arose from her parents' bitter separation in 1869 and divorce in 1878, when she became aware that the property and legal rights of Kentucky women, especially those married, were woefully unprotected. After considering careers in teaching, law, and the missionary field, Clay decided to devote her life to the woman's movement. In 1888 she took the leading role in organizing the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) , which she served as president until 1912. Although the growth of the association was slow, its lobbying in Frankfort by the mid-1890s had won a number of legislative and educational victories, including protection of married women's property and wages, a requirement for women physicians in state female insane asylums, and the admission of women to a number of male colleges.
As an officer in both the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs , Clay persuaded the groups to join the KERA in advocating additional benefits for women and children at the turn of the century. Their efforts secured legislation that provided for a women's dormitory at the University of Kentucky , established juvenile courts and detention homes, and raised the age of consent from twelve to sixteen years. Clay and other women activists saw the vote as the capstone of their movement. With the state legislature's grant of school suffrage in 1912, they won a partial victory.
During the 1890s, Clay became the best-known southern suffragist and the South's leading voice in the councils of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her efforts were largely responsible for the establishment of suffrage societies in nine of the former Confederate states. Clay addressed constitutional conventions in Mississippi and Louisiana and managed an unsuccessful NAWSA effort to add women's suffrage to the South Carolina constitution of 1895. In 1896 Clay was elected auditor of the NAWSA, a post she held for fifteen years. She maintained a position of moderation and conciliation on the NAWSA official board in matters of both race and personality clashes. As an unpaid NAWSA field worker, she also directed suffrage campaigns in Oregon, Oklahoma, and Arizona. While chair of the association's membership committee, she introduced recruiting innovations that almost tripled the number of members, from 17,000 in 1905 to 45,501 in 1907. In 1911 Clay lost her bid for reelection as auditor, following a dispute between the southern and western suffragists and those from the East over administrative and organizational matters. Contrary to some accounts, neither the race question nor the issue of the federal amendment versus the state route to enfranchisement figured in this dispute. Despite her removal from the official board of the NAWSA, Clay for a number of years chaired association committees, contributed to fund drives, and worked in state suffrage campaigns.
In 1916 Clay was elected vice-president-at-large of a new organization, the Southern States Woman Suffrage Association, founded to win the vote through state enactment. Clay saw this organization as an auxiliary, not a rival, of the NAWSA, whose activities she continued to support. It was not until 1919, when the U.S. Congress enacted the Nineteenth Amendment, that Clay withdrew from the NAWSA, turned her energies to securing a state suffrage bill in Kentucky, and began openly to oppose the federal bill. She based her opposition to it on states' rights, asserting that the Nineteenth Amendment was a vast and unneeded extension of federal power. A product of her time, Clay was a believer in Anglo-Saxon superiority but was paternalistic, rather than Negrophobic, in her attitudes.
After the ratification of the suffrage amendment, Clay continued to work for women's rights and the involvement of women in civic life. She helped organize the Democratic Women's Club of Kentucky, served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1920, and ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1923. A firm believer in women's church rights, she was instrumental in winning vestry and synod eligibility for women in the Lexington diocese of the Episcopal church. In the 1928 presidential campaign, she made a number of speeches for the Democratic nominee, Alfred E. Smith, and vigorously condemned national prohibition. When Kentucky voted for the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Clay served as a member and temporary chair of the ratifying convention in Frankfort. Clay died on June 29, 1941, and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery .
PAUL E. FULLER, Entry Author
Selected Sources from UK Libraries:Totenberg, Nina., Heather. Lyons, Chris. Blair, and Little City Media Workshop. Laura Clay, Voice of Change a Documentary Film. Lexington, Ky.: Little City Media Workshop, 1992.
SC-V4082, Young Media Library
Goodman, Clavia. Bitter Harvest; Laura Clay's Suffrage Work. Lexington [Ky.: Bur, 1946. Print. Kentucky Monographs. 3.B C5784g, Special Collections Research Center - Biography Collection
Clay, Laura. Laura Clay Papers, 1882-1941, 1906-1920 (bulk Dates) (1882). Print.
PA46M4, Special Collections Research Center
PA46M4, Special Collections Research Center