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Our Rich History: Jessica Firth, first Kenton County woman to run for state office, was change agent

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to the NKyTribune

Jessica (Jessie) Firth was a change agent for many causes, especially for the right of women to vote. In 1923, she became the first woman in Kenton County to run for a state public office.

In 1894, Eugenia Farmer of Covington and Laura Clay of Lexington visited the Kentucky General Assembly in Frankfort, lobbying for the passage of a bill to allow women in second-class cities (namely Covington, Lexington, and Newport) to vote in municipal school board elections. With the help of Covington state senator William Goebel, the bill passed the assembly. It allowed for women’s suffrage in school board elections in second-class cities, as well as for women to run as candidates for those same school boards.

In Fall 1895, Covington, Lexington and Newport made history, becoming the first large cities in the Commonwealth of Kentucky to permit partial women’s suffrage. Three women ran for the Covington school board, and although all three lost, both white and black women in Covington exercised their new right to vote in school board elections — even before women in the first-class city of Louisville had such a right.

Jessica Firth (From the Paul Tenkotte collection)

Jessica Firth (From the Paul Tenkotte collection)

Sadly, in 1902, the Kentucky General Assembly revoked the permission for women to vote in school board elections in second-class cities like Covington. This regressive move was tied to the women suffragists’ then-controversial inclusion of black women in voting, as well as to some of the women leaders’ support of the temperance movement against alcohol abuse.

Jessie Firth was a suffragist, as well as a supporter of temperance. She was a charter member of the Covington Woman’s Club, organized in 1914. In addition, Firth served as president of the Kenton County Equal Rights Association in Covington (a women’s suffrage organization), and as president of the Covington Women’s Christian Temperance Union. A member of First Methodist Church in Covington, she also chaired the Covington Housewives’ League, which crusaded for “fair prices and government food stores at the end of World War I” (“Mrs. Jessie Firth Dies in Covington.” Kentucky Post, October 10, 1950, p.1).

In 1919, at the end of World War I, Jessie Firth was appointed to serve on a Kenton County commission to stamp out illiteracy. In that same year, Mayor John Craig of Covington chose her as the official representative of the city in buying government foodstuffs.

In January 1920, Kentucky became the 23rd state to ratify the 19th Amendment for national women’s suffrage. The Kentucky Equal Rights Association then slowly transitioned itself into becoming the Kentucky League of Women Voters (KLWV). Firth, who was president of the Kenton County League of Women Voters, served as secretary of the state KLWV.

In 1923, Firth became the first woman in Kenton County to run for a state public office. She ran on the Republican ticket for the state House of Representatives for the 64th District. Although she lost the election, she made history.

At the time of her death in October 1950, Jessie Firth was 86 years old. She lived at 911 Scott Street in Covington and had been preceded in death by her husband, Charles F. Firth, who worked as a freight agent for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in Covington. She was buried in Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

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