Governor Laffoon handing the gavel to Laura Clay as
Temporary Chairman of the Kentucky Convention to ratify the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. Kentucky Virtual Library
|Laura Warfield Clay
As a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky one of the assignments in my Women's History course, my cognate area being Women's Studies, was to conduct original source or “archival” data research. I chose to research a national suffragist from our region, Laura Warfield Clay of Lees, Kentucky. After overcoming a sense of voyeurism that comes from reading personal letters and journals, I was impressed with the wealth of information to be gleaned about this strong and educated woman of the 1800s and 1900s. The exercise afforded me the opportunity to hold letters written in Susan B. Anthony’s own hand as she offered her support to Clay. That alone was a thrill.The assignment instructed researchers to use only the papers available in the collections, and though wider sources might paint a fuller picture of Clay, the journal, letters, programs, and brochures preserved from the 19th and 20th centuries were sufficient for a number of insights.
BLESSED WITH EDUCATION and intellect and devoted to her religion and to women’s rights, Laura Warfield Clay was a woman of conflicted passions. She was born in Madison County, Ky. in 1849, the daughter of Mary Jane Warfield and Cassius M. Clay. Her father was an abolitionist, and he was the ambassador to Russia from 1863 to 1869. Although as an adult she was recognized as a leader in the suffrage movement, spoke publicly to advocate for women’s right, corresponded with Susan B. Anthony and wrote legislators in support of bills for “domestic legislation,” Clay’s commitment to women’s issues was not always so firm. Particularly in her early life she vacillated between support for women and her religious commitments.
Clay started her journal at age 15 and maintained it intermittently until 1880. She was attending school in Richmond, Ky., while her mother, “Ma,” stayed home in what the journal identified as Lees near Richmond, and her Pa served as ambassador in Russia. She boarded with a woman identified only as Mrs. Craig until her Aunt Carrie returned from Louisville to set up housekeeping in Richmond.
She wrote frequently of wanting to be a good Christian, hoping to be baptized and confirmed into the church, but Pa “always disliked his children to join the church.” She also felt hindered in her goal with feelings of not being repentant enough, not really loving God completely, and not praying in her heart. She noted, “kneeling made her tied.” She felt that if she joined the church repentance and love would come. The sins Clay identified as her worst were indolence and laziness. Often she wrote of not paying attention to her duties to God, not attending to her studies, rising too late for breakfast and seeming preoccupied with not being cared for or well liked, mentioning on several occasions her ability to love that was not being used.
Clay's mental battle with women's rights and her understanding of Christianity is evident in a May 16, 1864 journal entry.
June 8 through 19 entries showed an unsteady hand noting the presence of Rebels in town, some looting by the invaders, notices to evacuate, and then, at her home in Lees, the burning of the family’s carriage houses and carriages.
Just before Christmas of 1864 Pa gave her permission to be baptized and after noting her new commitment to God the journal ceased until 1874 at which point. as an adult woman, her interest in Women’s Rights became evident in her notations. She maintained her devotion to being a good Christian though she still viewed indolence and laziness as her worst sins, but woven into her recordings are references to her strengthening commitment to the “Women’s Rights opinion.” Her conflict between religion and rights waned.
In the early 1870s Clay joined the Association for the Advancements of Women, petitioned legislators for bills in support of women's rights and presented public addresses advocating for women's equality. Correspondence with Susan B. Anthony reflected a partnership of mutual respect with Anthony offering encouragement, argument and direction to Clay. In her journal Clay copied excerpts from the Charleston (S.C.) News & Courier coverage of two of her speeches given at roughly 27 years of age. The date written in the journal is not clear but appears to be 1876, but it could be 1879.
Clay's parents divorced in 1878 and the events that followed solidified her commitment to women's rights. Although she and her sisters had lived in and managed the family home, White Hall, the divorce left them with no legal claim to the family estate.
Spotty entries continue in the journal until 1880 at which time
Her work for the betterment of women continued even after passage of the 19th amendment. She was clearly concerned with seeing that women were added to the faculty at the University of Kentucky and to hospital staffs. She ran unsuccessfully for the Kentucky Senate in 1923, and she was active in the temperance movement, in the peace movement prior to World War I, in the Episcopal Church and in the Democratic Party. Clay died in 1941 at age 92.