‘Her’Story: Women in the Special Collections: Mary Barr Clay, the Louisville Equal Rights Association, and Women’s Rights

This summer’s Filson Friday talks by staff members of The Filson included a two part series entitled ‘Her’Story: Encountering Women in The Filson’s Special Collections.  The blog will occasionally be featuring some of the women and women’s organizations discussed during these sessions.

Throughout the history of the United States, women have taken part in activism.  Activism can be defined as “intentional efforts to bring about social, political, economic, or environmental change.” Driven by religious enthusiasm, the desire for equal rights, civic awareness, or some other internal urging, many women dedicated a portion, or all, of their lives to improving the lives of others.  Working individually or in groups, some women took up the activist mantle through the Women’s Movement, which is often considered to have begun in the United States in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention in New York.  From that point on, the Movement spread via feminist newspapers and woman’s organizations, spreading the fight for women suffrage and equal rights nationwide.

Mary Barr Clay

Mary Barr Clay [from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, et al, "History of Woman Suffrage, vol. III," 1886: 816

In Kentucky, one strong example of an agitator for women’s rights was Mary Barr Clay (1839-1924).  The daughter of famous Kentucky abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, Mary Barr Clay was driven to agitate for women’s right to vote after living through the ramifications of her own divorce and the divorce of her parents. Mary is often known for bringing her more famous sister, Laura, into the suffrage movement. Mary herself, however, was the first Kentuckian to hold the office of president in a national woman’s organization, serving as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association from 1883-1884.  Mary and her sisters, Laura, Annie, and Sallie Clay, spent their time making speeches and raising the consciousness of Kentuckians, eventually organizing suffrage societies within Kentucky.  The Filson’s collection of Cassius Marcellus Clay Papers contains correspondence written to Mary Barr Clay regarding women’s suffrage from such famous proponents as Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.  This correspondence shows that Clay was indeed one of the pioneers of the Kentucky feminist movement.

Lucy Stone letters to Mary Barr Clay, 1883 and 1887

Lucy Stone letters to Mary Barr Clay, 1883 and 1887



In one letter from 1883, Lucy Stone, a leader of the American Woman Suffrage Association, urged Mary to attend the next meeting of the organization. “I trust you will be with us…all the more do I desire this, because it is more than probably you will be elected president for next year.  There should be a report from Kentucky and one speech – let us depend upon you and your sister Laura to have Kentucky well represented.” [8 Sept 1883] In 1887, Stone continues to push for “Clay” representation at annual meetings, writing, “I wish all the Clay sisters could be there to represent Kentucky – But by all means you should come, not only to report but to make one of the speeches.  Can you not promise me…?” [6 Aug 1887]

Susan B. Anthony to Mary Barr Clay, 29 October 1880

Mary was also in contact with Susan B. Anthony, leader of the National Women Suffrage Association.  Anthony came to speak in Kentucky in October 1879, and was in contact with Mary about her arrangements, writing, “All I shall want….will be a cup of genuine Kentucky Coffee (not Bourbon Whiskey)…I am anticipating a great deal of pleasure in visiting your part of the state and you may make all the engagements you please….” [20 Oct. 1879]  The next year, Anthony writes to Mary, “Your most welcome letter…reassures me that you are still in the body, and still wide-awake for work for woman’s emancipation.” [29 Oct. 1880] The correspondence between Mary and these national figures ends in 1902, as she became caught up with ill health and family obligations. It would be very interesting to discover if the corresponding letters from Mary exist in the Stone and Anthony papers, as there is little of Mary’s own correspondence here at The Filson.

Louisville Equal Rights Association Minute Book, Mss. BJ L894, Cover

Louisville Equal Rights Association Minute Book

Along with the papers of individuals such as Mary Barr Clay, The Filson holds the records of organizations concerned with equal rights for women.  One such organization was the Louisville Equal Rights Association (LERA).  The Filson holds its minute book, which documents the group’s work and meetings from 1889 through 1895.  The minute book includes the constitution and by-laws of the LERA, whose stated object was “to advance the industrial, educational, and legal rights of women, and to obtain the franchise for them.” Membership was one dollar, a portion of which went to the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, a state-wide umbrella organization. One issue the women discussed in an early meeting was a proposed “test” of a state law, never before enforced – that a widow who had children from the age of six to twenty, or taxable property, could vote for school trustees. Later entries in the LERA minute book include a discussion on adopting work that was less directly involved in suffrage, in the hopes of attracting individuals who were “not quite prepared to accept the main question”.  The minute book ends in 1895 but an identification tag on the front suggests that the organization was eventually succeeded by the Louisville Woman Suffrage Association in the 1910s.

The LERA minute book records the inner workings of this group of women interested in the cause of women’s rights, documenting their challenges and successes.  While the Louisville sections of groups as this were not as well-known or as active as those in other parts of the state, such as the organizations the Clay sisters were a part of, a small band of committed women kept the issue alive in Louisville.  Eventually, thanks in part to the hard work of women like Mary Barr Clay and the members of LERA, Kentucky women did receive the vote with the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920.

[See the Cassius Marcellus Clay Papers, Mss. A/C619/7-11, and the Louisville Equal Rights Association Minute Book, Mss. BJ/C894, in The Filson’s Special Collections Department.]

Jennie Cole

Jennie Cole is the Manager of Collection Access at The Filson. She has a MLIS with a specialization in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in History from the University of Louisville. Jennie's research interests in the Filson's collections include women's history, Camp Zachary Taylor, and Speed family of Louisville.

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