Five Pioneering Women in Kentucky Politics

In preparation for the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, we asked selected Museum student workers to perform research on twenty women active in Kentucky political life, and identify any related Rather-Westerman collection items. This initial student research assisted in exhibit creation and our work with classes exploring women in the state’s political life. We also believe this type of real-life museum work is helpful to students in honing their own research skills. Today, we’re recapping their work with a brief look at five pioneering women in Kentucky politics.

Mary Barr Clay (1839 – 1924)

Born in Lexington, Clay was the daughter of abolitionists, who likely influenced her desire to become active in political life. After a brief marriage, Clay took back her name and changed the names of her two youngest children to Clay as well. In 1878, emboldened by her parents’ divorce that left her mother homeless and destitute, Clay became active in the women’s rights movement. She became the first woman from Kentucky to be president of a national women’s organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association, in 1883. She is also credited with starting Kentucky’s first permanent women’s rights association. She later became vice president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA).

Eliza Calvert Hall, a.k.a. Lida (Calvert) Obenchain (1856-1935)

Photograph showing Eliza Calvert Hall / Lida Calvert Obenchain with her grandson, Val C. Winston. WKU Department of Library Special Collections, 1975.27.101

Born Lida Calvert in Bowling Green, Eliza had a relatively normal life until her father embezzled money and spent thirteen years as a fugitive. During that time, Lida became a teacher to help support her family and began writing. In 1885, she married – and quickly became frustrated with the constraints put upon married women. She joined the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) at the urging of Laura Clay (sister of Mary Barr Clay), and her experiences inspired her written works.

In 1898, she wrote “Sally Ann’s Experience” about married women’s rights to property and custody of their children. The story was republished in several magazines, even outside of the United States. Shortly after, Eliza became Press Superintendent for the KERA. She continued to write articles on women’s suffrage, culminating in a collection of short stories published as Aunt Jane of Kentucky in 1907.

Mary Elliott Flanery (1867 – 1933)

Born in Carter County, Flanery attended Barboursville College (now the University of Charleston) and the Agricultural and Mechanical State College (now the University of Kentucky) before marrying William Harvey Flanery and having five children. While the couple lived in Pikeville, Flanery became a journalist and teacher. She became involved in the suffrage movement and educational reform, eventually becoming the first woman elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives and the first woman elected to a legislature in a southern state. During her time there, she defended the creation of teachers’ normal schools, reforms to marriage and divorce laws, and the Shepard-Towner Maternity Act. She also served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1924.

Nannie Helen Burroughs (1880 – 1961)

Burroughs holding a Woman’s National Baptist Convention banner. Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Born in Virginia, Burroughs was the daughter of a formerly enslaved couple. She attended school in Washington, DC, graduating with honors. However, she was turned down for a public school teaching position.

In 1898, Burroughs moved to Louisville, where she worked as editorial secretary and bookkeeper for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention. While there, she founded the Women’s Convention, which provided help to the NBC. As its President, Burroughs also helped form the National Association of Wage Earners to draw attention to the dilemmas of African American women. She also published several plays, including the popular The Slabtown District Convention.

Her work led to her appointment as Committee Chairwoman for the White House Conference of 1931 Home Building and Ownership, which was concerned with African American housing during the Great Depression. Following this, she proposed a school initiative for poor, working African American women to the National Baptist Convention (NBC), which purchased six acres of land in D.C. for the school. Entirely relying on small donations from African American women and children, she raised enough money to open the National Training School for Women and Girls. The school taught the Bible, personal hygiene, and industrial training, and eventually Burroughs spearheaded the addition of African American history courses.

Burroughs never married. She died in 1961 in Washington, D.C., having used her brief time in Kentucky to begin transformations that would change the lives of innumerable African American women.

Mary Louis Roach (1896 – 1979)

Not much is known about Mary Louis Roach – whose name also has various spellings. On her gravestone in Maplewood Cemetery of Mayfield, Kentucky, it is spelled “Mary Lois Cole Roach”. Yet in 1922, this local woman became perhaps the first female sheriff in Kentucky, serving for five years. She is possibly the first woman elected to this office, though evidence regarding female sheriffs is scarce and contradictory.

Sheriff’s badge of the High Sheriff of Graves County, Ky., carried by Mary Lois Roach. Catalog No. 1976.30.1
To adopt this artifact, click here to make a gift of $20 and write “1976.30.1” in the notes section.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.