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Our Rich History: Eugenia B. Farmer was a suffragist, early proponent of equal rights in Northern Kentucky

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Too many women in Northern Kentucky history have been either forgotten or, if remembered, unsung. Yet, they have exercised an overwhelming influence on our region. One of these women was Eugenia B. Farmer (1835-1924).

Born Eugenia Barrett in 1835, she grew up in Cincinnati. In the 1850s, she attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Eugenia married Henry C. Farmer (1830-1912) in 1858, and followed him throughout the nation in his railroad career.

Eugenia and Henry were both Unionists during the Civil War, living for a time in St. Louis, Missouri. There, in 1861, their son Edmund died. Grief-stricken, Eugenia consulted a doctor, who felt that the best therapy for her would be helping others. She began to volunteer at a Union hospital, where she met a father and his four sons, all of whom had lost a leg in the war. From that point on, service to others became her life’s calling.

Eugenia Farmer, Kentucky Post, August 6, 1895

Eugenia Farmer, Kentucky Post, August 6, 1895

Her husband’s job took the couple to Washington, D.C., where Eugenia first met one of America’s leading suffragists, Susan B. Anthony. The two became friends, and attended twelve National Suffrage Conventions together.

Moving to Covington, Eugenia organized the Kenton County Equal Rights Association (ERA) in 1888, following close on the heels of the establishment of her friend Laura Clay’s Fayette County Equal Rights Association in Lexington that same year. The two women, and members of their chapters, attended the national convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), held in Cincinnati in November 1888.

Emboldened by the Cincinnati convention, Clay, Farmer, and other women established the Kentucky Equal Rights Association in November 1888, with Clay as President and Farmer as corresponding secretary. Their work led to some success in the new state constitution of 1891, which included language to allow the General Assembly to pass laws for limited woman suffrage for municipal and other elections.

Now, the focus shifted to getting the Kentucky General Assembly to pass laws favorable to the exercise of women’s rights. In 1894, with the help of Covingtonian and state senator William Goebel, the General Assembly extended property rights to married women, and also permitted women to be candidates for, and to vote in, school-board elections in second-class cities. As then defined by the state constitution, second-class cities (based upon population) included only Covington, Lexington, and Newport.

In the Fall 1895 municipal elections, Covington, Newport and Lexington made state history, allowing women —black and white— partial woman suffrage, long before Louisville (a first-class city). Women could only vote for school-board candidates, but nonetheless, the move was an important step.

Meanwhile, Eugenia Farmer and the Kenton County ERA continued to lobby for the extension of women’s voting rights. In 1897, the Kentucky ERA held its first state convention in Covington, and again in 1901 and 1902. The Kenton County ERA brought nationally-known women leaders to Covington to speak, including Gail Laughlin (1868-1952).

Sadly, although the Kenton County ERA had steadfastly supported the vote for both black and white women, many men and women of the day were abhorred by the practice. Likewise, as many suffragists were leaders in the temperance movement, still others began to view the women’s movement as unfocused. The suffrage movement itself began to splinter into factions.

Eugenia Farmer charged that “liquor interests” were responsible for the Kentucky General Assembly’s 1902 repeal of the right of women to vote in municipal school-board elections in second-class cities. By that time, Eugenia Farmer was preparing to move with her husband to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she remained active in the suffrage movement. She died in 1924, having lived to see women gain the right to vote in national elections.

Paul A. Tenkotte (tenkottep@nku.edu) is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU. With other well-known regional historians, James C. Claypool and David E. Schroeder, he is a co-editor of the new 450-page Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015, now available at your local booksellers, the City of Covington, and online sellers.

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