By Kate Hesseldenz, Curator
Founded in 1888, the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (K.E.R.A.), was the first women’s rights organization in the South. Names such as Laura Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge come to mind as leaders of Kentucky’s suffrage movement. Although not as well known, there were many other women who were involved.
The downtown neighborhood where Liberty Hall is located was home to several Frankfort suffragists. In a recent discovery, we learned that two of the Brown women, Margaretta Brown Barret (1839-1920) and Eliza Brown Baily (1845-1923), were Kentucky suffragists. Other suffragists lived within a few blocks of Liberty Hall, including Elizabeth “Lizzie” Pepper, Christine Bradley South, and Rebecca Gordon Averill.
Margaretta Barret and Eliza Baily both grew up at Liberty Hall, two of the three daughters of Mason and Mary Yoder Brown. After marrying and moving away, Margaretta and Eliza returned to Liberty Hall after being widowed in the late19th century. They moved in with their sister, Mary Yoder Brown Scott, who had inherited Liberty Hall. Included in the household was Mary Scott’s daughter Mary Mason “Mame” Scott. Soon after returning to Frankfort, Margaretta and Eliza became involved in the women’s rights movement.
Maybe it isn’t that surprising, then, that two of the sisters became advocates for women’s rights. A member of several woman’s organizations, Barret became a founding member of the Frankfort Equal Rights Association in 1902.[i] The Frankfort E.R.A. was a local chapter of K.E.R.A. K.E.R.A.’s early goals were broader than women obtaining the vote--its founders wanted reform. Goals included gaining property rights for married women and admittance to institutions of higher education. [ii]
In 1894, Margaretta was the first president of the Woman’s Club of Frankfort. [iii] Early activities of the club included literary projects that provided children in rural Kentucky with books through traveling libraries.[iv] Women’s clubs throughout the state later became active in women’s suffrage and by 1913, the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs officially endorsed suffrage.[v]
Eliza Baily’s obituary states that she was “well known for her charitable work and a pioneer in woman’s organizations.”[vi] Like her sister Margaretta, Eliza also served as president of the Woman’s Club of Frankfort.[vii] She was also a member of the Frankfort Equal Rights Association, beginning in 1904.[viii] She took over as president of the Association after the death of Hallie Herndon in January 1905. [ix] There were only five dues-paying members that year. [x] The Frankfort E.R.A. grew slowly but by 1916, there were 250 members.[xi]
[xii] She served as the Frankfort E.R.A. secretary in 1905.[xiii] In 1904 Laura Clay, president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, attended a regular meeting of the Frankfort E.R.A. at Rebecca’s home. Clay gave a presentation focusing on how K.E.R.A. had successfully petitioned bills for women's rights and discussed two pending ones: co-guardianship of children and school suffrage for women. School suffrage would allow women to vote on educational matters, such as voting in local school district elections. The two Brown women attended this meeting.[xiv]Rebecca Gordon Averill (1862-1941), a fellow Frankfort suffragist, friend, and neighbor of the Browns, helped create the Frankfort Equal Rights Association which met in her home, 206 Washington Street.
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Pepper (1871-1942) was corresponding secretary for K.E.R.A. in 1915 and she served as a committee chairman, alongside Margaretta Barret, in the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1913. [xv] Lizzie was friendly with Mame Scott (1867-1934), the two women were about the same age. The Pepper family lived in a large home that faced Main St. nearby Liberty Hall. The home is no longer standing, but Scott was a frequent visitor and Pepper sisters Lizzie and Laura spent time at Liberty Hall.[xvi] Although friendly with Lizzie Pepper, there is no evidence that Mame was a suffragist.
Another Frankfort suffragist and neighbor, Christine Bradley South (1878-1957) lived at 505 Wapping St., now referred to as the South-Willis House. South, too, may have been friendly with Mame Scott and at the very least they knew each other. South was the daughter of Kentucky governor, William O. Bradley, and she was the president of K.E.R.A. from 1916-1919.
The United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919 granting women the right to vote. After Congress approved the amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of it for it to become law. Kentucky voted to ratify the amendment on January 6, 1920. It was signed by Governor Edwin P. Morrow. South, then the First Vice-President of K.E.R.A., attended the ratification signing. Morrow also happened to be her first cousin. The 36th state to ratify was Tennessee on August 18, 1920, thus ensuring that in every state, the right to vote in any election could not be denied based on sex. [xvii]
2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Celebrations were curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rescheduled for 2021, the Women’s Equality March in downtown Frankfort will take place August 21 and is sponsored by the Frankfort Suffrage Centennial Project. Liberty Hall will be open and free to the public that day from 12 – 2 p.m. An outdoor exhibit about the women associated with Liberty Hall will be in the garden from August 16-23.
[i] “Equal Rights: Local Association Addressed by Miss Laura Clay on Current Topics,” Frankfort Roundabout newspaper article, February 6, 1904
[ii] Goan, Melanie Beals, A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote (2020): University Press of Kentucky, Lexington
[iii] “Long Illness Ends in Death: Mrs. Margaretta Mason Barret Dies at Liberty Hall,” State Journal newspaper article, Frankfort, KY, December 5, 1920
[iv] Veno, Chanda, “Woman's Club of Frankfort celebrating 125 years with Sunday open house,” State Journal newspaper article, October 18, 2019
[v] Goan, Melanie Beals, A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote (2020): University Press of Kentucky, Lexington
[vi] Eliza Baily obituary, 1923, Brown family obituary scrapbook, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections
[vii] Eliza Baily obituary, 1923, Brown family obituary scrapbook, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections
[viii] “Equal Rights: Local Association Addressed by Miss Laura Clay on Current Topics,” Frankfort Roundabout newspaper article, February 6, 1904
[ix] "Officers of the Local Associations," 19, Minutes of the Sixteenth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association Held at the Spiritual Temple, Newport, Kentucky, November 10, 1905.
[x] "Treasurer's Report," 10, Minutes of the Sixteenth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association Held at the Spiritual Temple, Newport, Kentucky, November 10, 1905.
[xi] Goan, Melanie Beals, A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote, Zoom Lecture, August 10, 2021 hosted by the Paul Sawyier Public Library
[xiii] "Officers of the Local Associations," 19, Minutes of the Sixteenth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association Held at the Spiritual Temple, Newport, Kentucky, November 10, 1905.
[xiv] “Equal Rights: Local Association Addressed by Miss Laura Clay on Current Topics,” Frankfort Roundabout newspaper article, February 6, 1904
[xvi] Mary Mason “Mame” Scott diary, 1926, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections