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Kentucky by Heart: Historian breaks new ground with book on Ky’s role in passage of 19th Amendment

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

It was a long and circuitous path toward the final passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the act giving America’s women the right to vote. It would take years of grinding work amidst plenty of fits and starts, and the complexities of the issue of fighting for women’s suffrage were enormous. The leaders of the movement were far from united, and the worst of human nature and misplaced passions often reared their ugly heads. It was true throughout the United States, and that certainly included Kentucky.

Melanie Beals Goan (Photo provided)

And now, historian Melanie Beals Goan has broken new ground in chronicling the people and events, focusing particularly on Kentucky’s involvement, that eventually made women’s voting rights a reality. Her book, A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote (University Press of Kentucky, 2020), portrays, according to one reviewer, “a world where religious conviction, regional discord, reform movements, racism, and many other forces shaped and reshaped Kentucky’s citizen-activists.”

And those involved, including such colorful characters as Laura Clay (daughter of abolitionist Cassius M. Clay), Josephine Henry, Madeline McDowell Breckenridge, and a host of others, made it an adventurous ride. Goan leaves no doubt that Kentucky played a significant role in bringing our nation closer to the point where it should have always been—equality of gender.

Melanie is Director of Undergraduate Studies for the History Department who specializes in women’s history as an associate professor at the University of Kentucky. This is her second book, having previously published Mary Breckinridge: The Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia. I recently had a chance to communicate via email with her to find out more about her newest work, and I found her insights intriguing.

The author takes on writerly tasks such as these with vigor and extreme persistence. “My first book took me nearly fifteen years to research and write,” she said. “By comparison, I completed A Simple Justice in less than five years.”

Kentucky Governor Edwin P. Morrow signing the stat’s ratification of the 19th ammendment (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Only taking five years for the second book should not imply that it was easier than the first one. Her colleagues warned her about the stress of writing to meet an anniversary deadline. “I should have taken their advice,” she said. “The project emerged from a 2015 meeting with several Kentucky women’s history scholars. We agreed that a new history of the Kentucky suffrage movement was needed, and I decided to tackle it. With the 2020 celebration of the Nineteenth Amendment quickly approaching, I had no time to waste.”

Fortunately, Melanie had some crucial help. She received a semester of research leave from UK, the publisher was encouraging, and scholars and community members wrote bio sketches of some of the lesser-known suffragists. “It was a true team effort,” she said, and noted her relief that that the book was released on schedule in September of 2020, the year of the hundred-year anniversary.

Her understanding today of America’s fight for women’s suffrage evolved over time. “Suffrage always seemed too obvious, the first thing that pops into many people’s minds when you say women’s history, and it was ground that had been previously covered,” she explained. “Kentucky’s two most famous suffragists had been the subject of book-length biographies, so at first, I wondered if a new study was even necessary. But when I started digging in, I realized how much more there was left to tell. I have focused on revealing the breadth of the movement, how it developed at different times in different parts of the state and how it required the work of thousands of men and women whose names had been lost to history.”

Kentucky played its part and more in its influence, and not only within the state.

“I was surprised to see how important Kentucky women were nationally in the movement and how Kentucky became key to winning the South over to the cause,” she continued. “However, I was most fascinated by the ways race and gender intersected in the movement. My book is part of a wave of new scholarship that has helped us better see how race prejudices complicated and stalled suffragists’ fight to expand democracy. Suffragists claimed the vote was ‘a simple justice,’ but that was far from the reality.”

As I read the book, twice, my personal tendency to romanticize such principal figures in history as pure and completely selfless received an awakening. Yes, some, such as British suffragette Emmeline Parkhurst, even advocated property destruction, if not actual violence against others. What does the author say about those advocating for suffrage who were much less than perfect human beings?

“Suffragists were by nature individuals willing to go against the grain,” she said. They had to be strong-willed and tenacious to ignore the ridicule heaped on them. They were also smart and talented and used to having to prove themselves. It is no wonder that they did not see eye to eye and disputes were common. While it may be easy to write a celebratory history that glossed over the disagreements and edited out the prejudices, it would not be accurate, and it would not be instructive. I can admire flawed historical figures, while using them to better understand my own blind spots and to consider ways to make the America of today more equitable.

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)

“I understand that we are all shaped by societal forces, and I try to carefully situate people within the context of their times, but I admire those who are willing to question their assumptions and to challenge social norms, like Covington’s Eugenia Farmer. Farmer demanded an expanded role for women, and she even ran for office herself in the 1890s, but she also worked to break down racial barriers when few of her colleagues within the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) were willing to do so. Many suffragists demanded justice and equality for themselves and for women who looked like them, but Farmer spoke for women of color, and that made her quite unusual for her times. She was an idealist who helped remind her colleagues what was possible.”

So what are today’s lessons from Melanie’s findings regarding inspiring positive change?

“One thing it demonstrates is that movements work best when people feel invested,” she stated. “The Kentucky Equal Rights Association tried to make it as easy as possible to become a suffragist, simply sign a card. But that did not create a lasting sense of investment, and energy waned. Successful movements must demonstrate why they matter and demand something of participants. The suffrage movement also reminds us that change takes time. Suffragists worked for 70 years to pass the Nineteenth Amendment, but it still did not give voting rights to all. Native American women, black women, even white women who married foreign men continued to lack access to the ballot, requiring additional legislation and action.

“Today, work to expand and protect the electorate continues. Felon restrictions, gerrymandering, efforts to ‘clean up’ voter rolls—too many Americans’ voices are still being silenced. However, we must recognize the progress that has been made. Change may happen slowly, but it matters. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ We must patiently bend that long arc.”

The book is available for purchase from the publisher, the University Press of Kentucky, along with many other sources.

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