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Old Time Kentucky: Laura Clay, daughter of Lion of White Hall, was first woman to get Presidential vote

By Berry Craig
NKyTribune columnist

Hillary Clinton is poised to become the first woman nominated for president by a major American political party.

Even so, the Democrat won’t be the first female proposed for president at a national convention.

That honor goes to Laura Clay of Lexington, daughter of storied Kentucky emancipationist, soldier and diplomat Cassius Marcellus Clay, dubbed “the Lion of White Hall.”

“She was nominated in 1920 in recognition of her support for women’s suffrage,” said Johnny Randall Huff, a tour guide at White Hall, Clay’s home. The imposing red brick mansion is preserved as a state shrine near Richmond, the Madison County seat.

Clay was a Democrat though her fiery father was a pioneer Kentucky Republican. He later switched over to the Democrats.

Kentucky's Laura Clay earned the distinction of being the first woman ever receiving a vote for a Presidential nomination at a national convention (Photo Provided)

Kentucky’s Laura Clay earned the distinction of being the first woman ever receiving a vote for a Presidential nomination at a national convention (Photo Provided)

In any event, U.S. Sen. A.O. Stanley of Henderson, who chaired the Bluegrass State delegation, nominated Clay, “Kentucky’s woman rights’ pioneer,” according to the July 6, 1920, Louisville Courier-Journal.

Later, Cora Wilson Stewart of Frankfort, the “originator of moonlight schools,” got a vote, too.

“Kentucky women have entered the list of ‘dark horse’ possibilities at the San Francisco convention,” the Courier-Journal reported. “So far, their booms are in an embryo state—only one vote has been cast for each.”

To nobody’s surprise, the Kentuckians’ “booms” went bust. Delegates at the Golden State gathering went with Gov. James M. Cox of Ohio. His running mate was a promising young New Yorker named Franklin D. Roosevelt. They lost in November to the GOP duo of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

Nonetheless, Clay earned “the distinction of being the first woman ever receiving a vote for a Presidential nomination at a national convention.” Her story grabbed front-page newspaper headlines from coast to coast.

Clay was born in White Hall in 1849. Her “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,” Paul E. Fuller wrote in The Kentucky Encyclopedia.

In 1888, she was the principal founder of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association. “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,” explained Fuller, author of Laura Clay and the Woman’s Rights Movement in Kentucky.

In 1916, Clay was elected vice-president-at-large of the new Southern States Woman Suffrage Association. The organization was started to win votes for women through state action, rather than via a constitutional amendment, which the NAWSA favored.

Clay remained in NAWSA until 1919 when Congress approved the 19th Amendment. The states ratified the measure later that year.

Clay opposed the 19th Amendment, claiming it violated “states’ rights, asserting that [it]…was a vast and unneeded extension of federal power,” Fuller wrote, adding, “A product of her time, Clay was a believer in Anglo-Saxon superiority, but was paternalistic, rather than Negrophobic, in her attitudes.”

Besides serving as a delegate to the 1920 Democratic National Convention, Clay helped found the Democratic Women’s Club of Kentucky and ran unsuccessfully for the Kentucky Senate in 1923, Fuller wrote.

Clay died in 1941 and is buried in the Lexington Cemetery, according to Fuller.

Her fellow nominee Stewart was a teacher “who led the crusade against illiteracy in Kentucky” and began “an experimental educational program in 1911 to teach adults in Rowan County…to read and write,” The Kentucky Encyclopedia says.

“Since most people were employed during the day, classes were held at night—specifically on moonlit nights, when students could more easily find their way to the schools. The term ‘moonlight schools’ differentiated this program from urban night schools of the northern United States.”

By 1913, similar schools were open in Boyle, Carter, Garrard, Johnson, Lawrence, Martin and Mercer counties. “Stewart’s philosophy was to open schools wherever there were illiterate persons, including prisons and reformatories,” the encyclopedia says. “Stewart’s work led to the development in Kentucky of state-supported literacy programs and served as a model for programs in other states.”

Stewart was born in Rowan County in 1875, became a teacher and “quickly earned a reputation as an outstanding educator,” according to the encyclopedia. She served two terms as county school superintendent and was the first woman president of the Kentucky Education Association. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover named her chair of the executive committee of the National Advisory Committee on Illiteracy. She died in North Carolina in 1958 and is buried in Tryon, N.C., according to the encyclopedia.


Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com

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