Laura Clay

Southern Women's Suffrage Leader

Laura Clay
Laura Clay. Visual Studies Workshop / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Laura Clay Facts

Known for: major Southern woman suffrage spokesperson. Clay, like many Southern suffragists, saw women's suffrage as reinforcing white supremacy and power.
Occupation: reformer
Dates: February 9, 1849 - June 29, 1941

Laura Clay Biography

Laura Clay Quote: "Suffrage is God's cause, and God leads our plans."

Laura Clay's mother was Mary Jane Warfield Clay, from a wealthy family prominent in Kentucky horse racing and breeding, herself an advocate of women's education and women's rights.

Her father was the noted Kentucky politician Cassius Marcellus Clay, a cousin of Henry Clay, who founded an anti-slavery newspaper and helped found the Republican party.

Cassius Marcellus Clay was the United States ambassador to Russia for 8 years under Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. He returned from Russia for a time and is credited with talking Lincoln into signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Laura Clay had five brothers and sisters; she was the youngest. Her older sisters were involved in working for women's rights. Mary B. Clay, one of her older sisters, organized Kentucky's first women's suffrage organization, and was president of the American Woman Suffrage Association from 1883 to 1884.

Laura Clay was born at her family's home, White Hall, in Kentucky, in 1849. She was the youngest of four girls and two boys. Laura's mother, Mary Jane Clay, was largely in charge, during her husband's long absences, of managing the family farms and property inherited from her family.

She saw that her daughters were educated.

Cassius Marcellus Clay was from a wealthy slaveholding family. He became an anti-slavery advocate, and among other incidents where he was met with violent reactions to his ideas, he was once nearly assassinated for his views. He lost his seat in the Kentucky state House because of his abolitionist views.

He was a supporter of the new Republican Party, and nearly became Abraham Lincoln's vice president, losing that spot to Hannibal Hamlin. At the beginning of the Civil War, Cassius Clay helped organize volunteers to protect the White House from a Confederate takeover, when there were no federal troops in the city.

During the years of the Civil War, Laura Clay attended Sayre Female Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. She attended a finishing school in New York before returning to her family home. Her father opposed to her further education.

The Reality of Women's Rights

From 1865 to 1869, Laura Clay helped her mother run the farms, her father still absent as ambassador to Russia. In 1869, her father returned from Russia -- and the next year, he moved his four-year-old Russian son into the family home at White Hall, his son from a long affair with a prima ballerina with the Russian ballet. Mary Jane Clay moved to Lexington, and Cassius sued her for divorce on grounds of abandonment, and won. (Years later, he created more scandal when he married a 15 year old servant, probably against her will as he had to restrain her from leaving. He divorced her after she attempted suicide. That marriage ended in divorce just three years later.)

Under existing Kentucky laws, he could have claimed all the property his ex-wife had inherited from her family and he could have kept her from the children; he claimed his wife owed him $80,000 for her years living at White Hall. Fortunately for Mary Jane Clay, he did not pursue those claims. Mary Jane Clay and her daughters who were still unmarried lived on the farms she inherited from her family, and were supported by the income from these. But they were aware the under the existing laws, they were able to do so only because Cassius Clay did not pursue his rights to the property and income.

Laura Clay managed to attend one year of college at the University of Michigan and one semester at State College of Kentucky, leaving to put her efforts into working for women's rights.

Working for Women's Rights in the South

Laura Clay Quote: "Nothing is so laborsaving as a vote, properly applied."

In 1888, the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association was organized, and Laura Clay was elected its first president. She remained president until 1912, by which time the name had changed to the Kentucky Equal Suffrage Association. Her cousin, Madeleine McDowell Breckinridge, succeeded her as president.

As head of the Kentucky Equal Suffrage Association, she led efforts to change Kentucky laws to protect married women's property rights, inspired by the situation in which her mother had been left by her divorce. The organization also worked to have female doctors on staff at state mental hospitals, and to have women admitted to State College of Kentucky (Transylvania University) and Central University.

Laura Clay was also a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and she was part of the Woman's Club movement, holding state offices in each organization. While Laura Clay's father had been a liberal Republican -- and perhaps in reaction to that -- Laura Clay became active in Democratic Party politics.

Elected to the board of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), newly merged in 1890, Clay chaired the new group's membership committee and was its first auditor.

Federal or State Suffrage?

Around 1910, Clay and other Southern suffragists began to be uncomfortable with efforts within the national leadership to support a federal woman suffrage amendment. This, they feared, would provide a precedent for federal interference in the voting laws of Southern states which discriminated against African Americans. Clay was among those who argued against the strategy of a federal amendment.

Laura Clay was defeated in her bid for reelection to the board of the NAWSA in 1911.

In 1913, Laura Clay and other Southern suffragists created their own organization, the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, to work for state-level women's suffrage amendments, to support voting rights only for white women.

Probably hoping for compromise, she supported federal legislation to allow women to vote for members of Congress, providing the women otherwise qualified as voters in their states.

This proposal was debated at NAWSA in 1914, and a bill to implement this idea was introduced into Congress in 1914, but it died in committee.

In 1915-1917, like many of those involved in women's suffrage and women's rights, including Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt, Laura Clay was involved in the Woman's Peace Party. When the United States entered World War I, she left the Peace Party.

In 1918, she briefly joined in supporting a federal amendment, when President Wilson, a Democrat, endorsed it. But then Clay resigned her membership in the NAWSA in 1919. She also resigned from the Kentucky Equal Rights Association that she had headed from 1888 to 1912. She and others formed, instead, a Kentucky-based Citizen's Committee to work for a suffrage amendment to the Kentucky state constitution.

In 1920, Laura Clay went to Nashville, Tennessee, to oppose ratification of the woman suffrage amendment. When it (barely) passed, she expressed her disappointment.

Democratic Party Politics

Laura Clay Quote: "I am a Jeffersonian Democrat."

In 1920, Laura Clay founded the Democratic Women's Club of Kentucky. That same year was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Her name was placed in nomination for President, making her the first woman so nominated at a major party's convention. She was nominated in 1923 as a Democratic candidate for the Kentucky State Senate. In 1928, she campaigned in Al Smith's presidential race.

She worked after 1920 for repeal of the 18th Amendment (prohibition), even though she herself was a teetotaler and a WCTU member. She was a member of the Kentucky state convention that ratified repeal of prohibition (the 21st Amendment), primarily on states' rights grounds.

After 1930

After 1930, Laura Clay led mostly a private life, focusing on reform within the Episcopal church, her lifelong religious affiliation. She interrupted her privacy to oppose a law paying male teachers more than female teachers would be paid.

She worked mostly within the church on women's rights, especially on allowing women to be delegates to church councils, and on permitting women to attend the Episcopal church's University of the South.

Laura Clay died in Lexington in 1941. The family home, White Hall, is a Kentucky historical site today.

Laura Clay's Positions

Laura Clay supported women's equal rights to education and to the vote. At the same time, she believed that black citizens were not yet developed enough to vote. She did support, in principle, educated women of all races getting the vote, and spoke at times against ignorant white voters. She contributed to an African American church project aimed at self-improvement.

But she also supported states' rights, supported the idea of white superiority, and feared federal interference in Southern states' voting laws, and so, except briefly, did not support a federal amendment for woman suffrage.

Connections

The boxer Muhammed Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, was named for his father who was named for Laura Clay's father.

Books About Laura Clay

  • Paul E. Fuller. Laura Clay and the Woman's Rights Movement 1975.
  • John M. Murphy. "Laura Clay (1894-1941), a Southern Voice for Woman's Rights." Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, ed. 1993.

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