A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Organizing for Action: Women’s suffrage in Northern Kentucky, Part 2

By Paul Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 31 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020,”
and Part 2 of our series: “Organizing for Action: Women’s Suffrage in Northern Kentucky.”

See Part 1 of our women’s rights series: “Organizing for Action: Women’s Suffrage in Northern Kentucky”

In 1888, the newly-founded Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) pumped new life into the women’s suffrage movement in the state. Four important leaders quickly emerged in KERA — Laura Clay; Eugenia Farmer; Isabella Shepard; and Josephine Henry. The last three had close ties to Northern Kentucky.

Laura Clay, circa 1916. Source: Library of Congress.

Laura Clay

Undoubtedly, the most famous women’s rights leader of KERA was Laura Clay (1849-1941), daughter of abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) and suffragist Mary Jane Warfield Clay (1815-1900). Laura Clay’s older sister, Mary Barr Clay (1839-1924), became president of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in 1883.

Laura Clay and Henrietta Chenault (1835-1918) co-founded the Fayette Equal Rights Association in Lexington, Kentucky in January 1888. Its mission clearly articulated a wide range of women’s rights initiatives: “to advance the industrial, educational and legal rights of women, and to secure suffrage to them by appropriate State and National legislation.” Laura Clay also served as the longtime president of KERA.

Eugenia B. Farmer. (Kentucky Post, August 6, 1895, p.1.)

Eugenia B. Farmer

Eugenia B. Farmer (1835-1924) was born in New York City, but grew up in Cincinnati. From 1851 until 1853, she attended Oberlin College in Ohio. She married Henry C. Farmer (1830-1912) in 1858, and followed him throughout the nation in his railroad career.

Eugenia and Henry Farmer were both Unionists during the Civil War, living for a time in St. Louis, Missouri. There, in 1861, their infant 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.

Her husband’s job brought the couple to Washington, D.C., where Eugenia first met one of America’s leading suffragists, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). The two became friends, and attended twelve national suffrage conventions together.

At Covington, Kentucky, Eugenia Farmer and Isabella Shepard organized the Kenton County Equal Rights Association (KCERA) in October 1888, following close on the heels of the establishment of Laura Clay’s Fayette County Equal Rights Association in Lexington earlier that same year. Members of the Kenton and Fayette 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, Farmer as corresponding secretary, and Shepard as treasurer. Their work led to 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.

Eugenia Farmer and the Kenton County ERA championed women’s rights. Through their influence, KERA held its state convention at Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington in 1897, and again there in 1901 and 1903. KCERA also brought nationally-known women leaders to Covington to speak, including Gail Laughlin (1868-1952).

By 1900, Eugenia and Henry Farmer had joined the Shakers at New Lebanon in the state of New York. Later, they moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she remained active in the suffrage movement. Farmer died in 1924, having lived to see women gain the right to vote in national elections. She was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

Obituary for
Isabela Shepard. (Kentucky Post, December 13. 1929, p1)

Isabella H. Shepard

Isabella H. Shepard (1856-1929) was born in Kentucky, the daughter of Ann and Henry Hartwig, Jr., a steamboat captain. She married John C. Shepard in December 1872. It was an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce.

Shepard served as longtime treasurer of KERA. She also gave lectures statewide on behalf of the organization. A friend of Eugenia Farmer, Laura Clay, and others, Shepard was a stalwart women’s rights leader. She died in St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana in December 1929 and was buried in Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky.

See also: Gregory J. Middleton, “Our Rich History: Covington’s Isabella H. Shepard was an early supporter of women’s suffrage,” NKyTribune and Gregory J. Middleton, “Isabella H. Shepard, 1852-1929,” in Tom Dublin, ed. Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street (a ProQuest Company), 2020.

Available here.

Josephine Henry. (Wikimedia Commons)

Josephine Henry

Josephine Henry (1846-1928) was born in Newport, Kentucky to the wealthy Williamson family. When she was fifteen years old, her family moved to Versailles, Kentucky. Josephine and her husband, William Henry, were activists for many causes. For example, Josephine herself was a freethinker, a writer, and a lecturer. She served on the Revising Committee of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible (2 parts, 1895, 1898), a highly controversial work for its day.

Regarded as a radical in KERA’s eyes, Henry was officially expelled from that organization in November 1898, although she actually resigned her membership earlier. As Eugenia Farmer had probably already left Kentucky by then, she managed to remain friends with both Henry and Clay.

Partial Women’s Suffrage

KERA worked assiduously to lobby the Kentucky General Assembly to pass laws favorable to the exercise of women’s rights. In 1894, Eugenia Farmer joined Laura Clay and Josephine Henry in lobbying for the successful passage of a state General Assembly bill permitting women in second-class cities (Covington, Lexington, and Newport; the class was determined by population) to vote in municipal school board elections, as well as to serve on their school boards. The bill received the steadfast support of Covington’s powerful state senator, William Goebel (1856–1900), and actually predated the same right for women in the state’s only first-class city by population, Louisville (“An Act for the government of cities of the second class in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” approved March 19, 1894, Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Frankfort, KY, Capital Printing Co., 1894, p. 313).

This political cartoon discounted women’s suffrage, by implying that they might vote for the more handsome male school board candidate. Note how the ballot box has ribbons on it. (Source: Kentucky Post, November 5, 1895, p. 7.)

In their Fall 1895 municipal elections, Covington and Lexington made state history, allowing all women—white and black alike, and regardless of their marital status or whether they owned property—women’s suffrage in school board elections. It was a bold move. Although the Kentucky General Assembly had become, in 1838, one of the first states in the nation to allow widows and single women owning property a limited vote in school districts, that law did not apply to married women or to those who did not own property, and further, it was seldom used (“An Act to establish a system of Common Schools in the State of Kentucky,” approved February 16, 1838, Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Frankfort, KY: A. G. Hodges—State Printer, 1838, p. 282).

Three women ran for the Covington school board in Fall 1895 and although all three lost, both white and black women in Covington exercised their new right to vote. Very clearly, white women’s rights leaders of Covington had intentionally chosen to recruit black women of the city to register and to vote. Sadly, that brave decision to do the right thing would have repercussions.

In the following year, in November 1896, the Women’s Independent ticket ran three women for the Newport School Board election. Again, although all three women lost, the Newport election was historic for the exercise of partial women’s suffrage.

By 1902, the Kentucky General Assembly, upset by the temperance agenda of many of the suffragists and by their inclusion of black women in municipal elections, sought its revenge. While it continued to allow qualified women to be members of the board of education of second-class cities, it revoked their partial suffrage rights in actually voting in school board elections. Women’s suffrage suffered a major setback in Kentucky (“An Act to amend and re-enact sections 22 and 23 of article 11, incorrectly designated article 9, entitled ‘Public Schools,’ of an act, entitled ‘An Act for the government of cities of the second class in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,’ approved March 19, 1894,” approved March 21, 1902, Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Louisville, KY: Geo. G. Fetter, 1902, pp. 85-86).

Dr. Sarah M. Siewers (Charles F. Goss, Cincinnati: The Queen City. 1788-1912. Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1912, Vol. 3, opposite p. 724.

Dr. Sarah M. Siewers

Dr. Sarah M. Siewers (1855-1926) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio but was raised on a farm in Campbell County, Kentucky. She graduated from Newport High School and the Eclectic Medical College in Cincinnati. In 1888, she organized the Campbell County Equal Rights Association in Newport, Kentucky. In addition, she was also longtime president of the Susan B. Anthony in Cincinnati, as well as president of the Walnut Hills Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

See also: Cassandra Hurst and Julie Ashton, “Dr. Sarah M. Siewers, 1855-1926,” in Tom Dublin, ed. Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street (a ProQuest Company), 2020. Available here.

Kate Trimble Woolsey

Perhaps the most internationally known of women’s rights leaders from Northern Kentucky was Kate Trimble Woolsey (1858-1936). She was born in Cynthiana, Kentucky in 1858, the daughter of prominent parents, William W. (1821-1886) and Mary Barlow Trimble (1831-1912). Kate was raised in Covington, Kentucky, where her father served as a judge. Her mother was a well-known Kentucky suffragist and a charter member of the Kenton County Equal Rights Association. In 1894, the Trimble Home hosted Susan B. Anthony and Helen Taylor Upton (1853–1945) while they attended a suffrage convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, opposite the Ohio River from Covington.

In 1881, Kate Trimble married Eugene de Roode (1857- 1887) of Lexington, Kentucky. They had one child, a son Trimble de Roode, who later became a noted inventor. Following Eugene’s death in 1887, Kate remarried in 1893. Her second husband was Edward J. Woolsey (1842–1895) of New York City. Despite Woolsey’s wealth, he was a recent divorcee, so the marriage was considered rather unconventional for the time period. The Woolseys had New York City homes on Lexington Avenue and on Washington Square, a summer house at Astoria, and a farm at Lenox, Massachusetts.

Kate Trimble Woolsey. Source: New York Evening World, June 1, 1912.

Kate Trimble Woolsey’s views were also unconventional for her era. She was a eugenicist, believing that science could be used to engineer better babies. Men, she felt, had reshaped the world of matriarchal societies into male-dominated patriarchies. In an article appearing in the New York Evening World in June 1912, she stated that: “I am a suffragist, but I know suffrage is only a part of the changes to come. Great mechanical inventions of the future will free women from the thraldom of housework and the home. She will resume her natural place in life. She will be the ‘female of the species,’ with all the rights of the female, and the most important right is that of choosing the father of the ideal baby.”

Kate Trimble Woolsey ardently believed that biologically, women and men shared many similarities. Further, she argued that gender roles were merely learned, not inherited, the result of centuries of social constructs. Hence, she believed that women were fully entitled to equal rights under the US Constitution. In a book regarded as controversial for its day, Republics versus Women (1903), she asserted that the aristocracies of Europe were actually more progressive in terms of women’s rights than the world’s republics, including the United States.

Woolsey’s wealth and prestige allowed her to travel back-and-forth between Covington, New York City, and Europe, on behalf of women’s rights. By 1911 or so, she had transitioned to residency in New York.

Kate Trimble Woolsey attended many women’s conventions throughout Europe and the United States. She delivered a keynote speech entitled “Has Democracy Benefited Womankind?” at the 40th annual NAWSA convention in Buffalo in 1908. Woolsey and Marie Curie (1867 -1934) were the only women delegates at the International Free Thought Congress in Brussels in 1910. New York Governor William Sulzer appointed Woolsey as official representative to the General Assembly of the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome, Italy in 1913.

Woolsey lived for many years at the Imperial Hotel in Manhattan, New York City. She died in Manhattan on August 10, 1936, and was buried in Battle Grove Cemetery in Cynthiana, Kentucky.

Jessica (Jessie) Firth

Jessica (Jessie) Firth (1864-1950) was born in Louisville, Kentucky. She married Charles F. Firth, a freight agent for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. The couple lived in Covington, Kentucky, where Jessie became instrumental in both the women’s suffrage and temperance movements.

Jessica (Jessie) Firth, 1919. (Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte)

Firth served as president of both the Kenton County Equal Franchise Association, the Covington Equal Rights Association, and the Covington Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In March 1913, she joined thousands of suffragists in a march in Washington, DC. Returning to Covington, Firth completed plans for a major suffrage rally at the city’s Odd Fellows Hall, featuring keynote speaker, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1872-1920).

For the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA), Firth served as Second Vice-President (1913 –1915), chairwoman of the state convention (1914), and Recording Secretary (1919). In 1914, on behalf of KERA, she traveled across Kentucky for seventy-days, “4,550 miles by rail and 114 miles by mail hack and auto bus,” visiting “twenty-three county institutes and spoke twenty-seven times; appointed chairman [sic] for ten county leagues, resuscitated four leagues out of which life had gone, strengthened a few weak-kneed apostles of the faith, and secured 839 members” (Report of the Twenty-First Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Held at Owensboro, Kentucky, November 6, 7 and 8, 1914. Louisville: C. T. Dearing Printing Co., 1914, p. 20).

On behalf of KERA, Firth was also an official state delegate to a number of annual National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) conventions. In 1915, she spent about ten weeks in New Jersey assisting in that state’s Woman Suffrage Referendum.

Firth was a charter member of the Covington Woman’s Club, founded in 1914. She attended First Methodist Church in Covington, and 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, Covington Mayor John Craig appointed Firth as the city’s official representative for buying government food supplies. In the same year, she was appointed to serve on a Kenton County commission to stamp out illiteracy.

The following year, in 1920, Kentucky became the 24th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment for national women’s suffrage. Thereafter, the KERA gradually transitioned into the Kentucky League of Women Voters (KLWV). Firth served as secretary of the state KLWV, as well as president of the Kenton County League of Women Voters.

In 1923, Firth became the first woman in Kenton County to run for a state public office, as the Republican Party’s official candidate for the 64th District seat of the state House of Representatives. She lost the election, but made history. She died at age 86 years old in October 1950 and was buried in Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.

From Eugenia Farmer to Isabella Shepard, Josephine Henry, Dr. Sarah Siewers, Kate Trimble Woolsey to Jessica Firth, scores of women with connections to Northern Kentucky led the state, national, and international movements for women’s suffrage. It is a heritage of which we should be proud during this special year of celebration, the centennial of national women’s suffrage in the United States, 1920-2020.

In Newport’s Fall 1896 school board election, the Women’s Independent ticket ran three candidates. (Source: Kentucky Post, October 29, 1896, p. 5.)

Major portions of this article originally appeared in:

• Paul A. Tenkotte, “Our Rich History: Eugenia B. Farmer was a suffragist, early proponent of equal rights in Northern Kentucky,” NKyTribune, May 2, 2016,

• Paul A. Tenkotte, “Our Rich History: Jessica Firth, first Kenton County woman to run for state office, was change agent,” NKyTribune, November 28, 2016,

• Paul A. Tenkotte, “Jessica (Jessie) Firth, 1864–1950,” in Dublin, Tom, ed. Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street (a ProQuest Company), 2020. Available at: https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/d/1010596217

• Paul A. Tenkotte, “Kate Trimble Woolsey, 1858-1936,” in Dublin, Tom, ed. Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street (a ProQuest Company), 2020. Available here.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). 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, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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