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Kentucky by Heart: Kentuckian Josephine Kirby Henry played integral role in securing women’s rights

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

It’s been a hundred years since the Nineteenth Amendment passed, giving women across America the right to vote. One of the highly influential advocates for women’s suffrage in that era was an amazing Kentuckian. She particularly intrigues me personally because of the geographical connection we have.

Josephine Kirby Henry, like me, has Northern Kentucky roots and later moved to my present town of residence, Versailles. She was born in Newport in 1843, daughter of Captain Euclid and Mary Kirby Williamson. According to The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, note also that Josephine was a niece of Captain John A. Williamson, a steamboat line-owner who developed the Central Bridge across the Ohio River at Newport.

Josephine K. Henry (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

She moved with her parents to Versailles at age 15, and she later married Captain William Henry, a former Confederate soldier who conducted a school for boys in Versailles located at what is today 246 Montgomery Avenue, an address I frequently drive past. Working together, they transformed the school to a co-ed model and the talented Josephine led the music department. But in time, Josephine expanded her influence and passion when she began to fight for property and voting rights for women.

In 1888, Josephine and Laura Clay (daughter of abolitionist firebrand Cassius Marcellus Clay, who ironically left his divorced wife in impoverishment) co-founded the Kentucky Equal Rights Association. Josephine later sought passage of the Kentucky Married Woman’s Property Act, and it passed in 1894. It is sometimes referred to as “The Husband and Wife Bill.” Author and publisher Michael N. Marcus blogged these illuminating words about the act and Josephine’s influence:

Henry regarded the Property Act as the first step toward women’s suffrage because she understood the importance of economic independence and security. She called for women to no longer be “treated as outlaws and all their property confiscated at marriage.” After years of speeches, articles and lobbying, the Property Act, though criticized as antifamily and unladylike, finally passed the General Assembly and was signed into law.

Josephine K. Henry marker (Photo from William G. Pomeroy Foundation)

I found other bits of information about Josephine that I find intriguing. The Prohibition Party ran her twice as a candidate for the Kentucky Court of Appeals, reportedly the first woman in the South to run in a public campaign for a state office. There was also talk of her running for the U.S. presidency on the Prohibition ticket, though a November 15, 1897 article in The New York Times about that possibility was dismissive, calling her an agnostic and saying at the conclusion: “She thinks Thanksgiving Day should be abolished and that no reference to God should be made in the Constitution.”

Tragically, the Henrys’ son, Frederick, died in a train derailment accident in Chicago in 1891. He was doing research for a newspaper he published in his hometown called the Versailles Clarion. Some think that the pain of that loss pushed Josephine toward agnosticism.

Josephine was a prolific and talented writer. Searching at the Woodford County Historical Society, I found a poem she wrote for the Woodford Sun on September 24, 1908, called “A Parody On Comin’ Thro’ The Rye.” One of the stanzas goes like this:

If it be true that Equal Rights
Is true Democracy,
To tax the women without votes
is downright tyranny,
Then list ye now to Freedom’s notes,
Sure as this planet rolls,
American women with their votes
Are comin’ to the polls.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Her writings include The New Women of the New South (The Arena, 1895, vol. XI); Musings in Life’s Evening; along with Marriage and Divorce, and she worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton on The Woman’s Bible, a feminist’s look at Christian scriptures. One of her most noted and incisive quotes came from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others’ book, The History of Woman Suffrage: “There are two great unknown forces today, electricity and woman, but men can reckon much better on electricity than they can on woman.”

Woodford County Historical Society member John Orr wrote in the June, 1996, issue of The Little Stinger that she “was a lady of culture, educated in independent thinking, and with a passion for justice. She strove mightily to gain for women the right to vote and to free them from Kentucky’s stifling patriarchal slavery.”

In collaboration with The William G. Pomeroy Foundation, a marker in tribute to Josephine was placed at her former home at 210 Montgomery Avenue on August 25, 2019. The home is now the home of self-employed photographer Bill Caine and family. The local historical society reached out to the family about its significance after they bought the house, and it became a subject of fascinating study for them.

According to Bill, the boys who attended the Henrys’ school down the street also lived with them at this address. “We’ve seen a photo of about 30 boys in the front of the house,” he said. “Here were two people who did amazing things (and) with their lives having massive tragedies. This house has been well-lived in for a long, long time.”

With that being said, the legacy of Josephine Henry’s work in helping women obtain the rights they should have always had will also abide for a long, long time.

Sources: National Collaboration for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS.org); The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky; whatisavoteworth.org; en.Wikisource.org; Woodford County Kentucky Historical Society; correspondence with Rachel Njenga; historynet.com; women.ky.gov; 4thefirsttime.blogspot.com; kywcrh.org; usgenwebsites.org

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