A Seat at the Table for Women of Color

Kentucky women have been active in politics for over 200 years. Before and after the passage of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote, they repeatedly sought to participate in political life and make their voices heard. Though not always self-identifying as feminist – one who supports political, economic, and social equality of the sexes – many fought for political, economic, and social equality. They organized groups focused on achieving their goals, ran for and attained political office, and proposed legislation.

Women of color did not share equally in the gains made over time by their white female counterparts. Although the 19th Amendment applied to women of color, cultural norms – manifested in Jim Crow laws and other discriminatory practices – restricted women of color from their rights, especially in the southern states. Our first season of Dime Stories is exploring some of these stories and their links to Black women today, but there’s more to the story. So we’ve decided to round up our favorite resources for learning about Suffrage for Women of Color, as featured in our Kentucky Women Rising exhibition.

First Wave Feminism

First Wave Feminism focused on women’s right to vote. In 1838 – ten years before the Seneca Falls Convention – Kentucky passed the first permanent statewide suffrage law. It allowed any widow or female head of household over 21 who paid property taxes the right to vote in elections for the school system. However, in practice, this right was denied in many counties. Despite strong opposition to women’s involvement in politics, historical records indicate that women were running for, and gaining, office at unprecedented rates. Yet the stories of Women of Color are often left out of this narrative. Here’s a great video on how First Wave Feminism was not possible without the participation of women of color:

Second Wave Feminism

Spurred by Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949) and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), the Second Wave focused on eliminating systemic sexism that encouraged women to remain wives and mothers. This wave included social equality – resulting in the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX, and a series of landmark Supreme Court cases on reproductive rights.

It was also the first time in Kentucky’s history where women of color successfully gained state office. In 1961, Amelia Tucker became the first African American elected to the Kentucky State Legislature. Six years later, in 1967, Georgia Davis Powers became the first woman and first person of color elected to the Kentucky Senate. Finally, in 1968, Mae Street Kidd became the first mixed-race Representative in Kentucky’s General Assembly.

Third and Fourth Waves

Third Wave feminism began in the early 1990s. Two moments spurred it on. First, Anita Hill’s testimony about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas prompted other women to speak out about sexual harassment. Second, the Riot Grrrl movement embraced a variety of ideas, language, and aesthetics that prompted some of the first intersectional fights for equality.

Despite comprising 51.6% of Kentucky’s population in 1996, women held only 17% of elective positions. Of these women, in 1991, Janie R. Martin became the first elected African American female judge in Kentucky.

Two decades later, beginning in 2012, the Fourth Wave explicitly focuses on intersectionalism – calling attention to how social categories such as race, class, and gender combine to oppress others. Its advocates also seek to end violence against women, ensure equal pay for equal work, and/or grant women full bodily autonomy. They also encourage men to participate, and advocate to end harmful gender stereotypes. Using the Internet, fourth wave feminists have mobilized on a national scale.

In 2018, Christine Thompson became the first Hispanic woman to win an election in Kentucky, as a member of the Livingston County School Board. The next year, in 2019, Nima Kulkarni became Kentucky’s first Indian American state legislator.

Despite this progress, women still occupy only 23% of seats in the state legislature. One inspiring video we love is the TEDxMiddlebury talk by Attica Scott, the first Black woman elected to Kentucky’s state legislature in over 20 years:

For additional resources on Kentucky women’s journey in politics, visit our virtual exhibits Kentucky Women Rising and A Seat at the Table.

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.

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