Overview

Overview of Kentucky Women’s History in the Civil Rights Era, 1920s-1970s

Senator Powers at podium at Votes for Women Rally Aug 26, 2010

Senator Powers gave a powerful speech at the Votes for Women Rally in the KY Capitol Rotunda, Aug 26, 2010

The civil rights era was one of the most significant sources of social change in the United States during the 20th century. In U.S. women’s history we know that the roots of the civil rights movement came from the early twentieth century. However, we tend to leap from the Progressive Era and the 19th Amendment to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 without much analysis as to how we got there. The history of Kentucky women complicates this issue even further since the cultural and economic diversity of the state contributed to astoundingly consistent inequalities and economic instability since the earliest days. Women’s history is often viewed as a sideline to the “real” history of Kentucky. However, this genre can often create a clearer picture in the mind of the general reader or novice historian than the usual scholarly history focused on male activities and words. One can read Kentucky women’s history as a way to learn Kentucky history more fully – and, those readers interested in Kentucky history can better learn women’s history. We can also examine Kentucky and national economic/political indicators for trends for Kentucky women’s future. Poverty has become feminized though women are half of the labor force (and more than half of those are mothers). While the context is bleak, the biographical narrative derived from oral history interviews can inspire many.


1920s-30
The Modern Woman in Kentucky:  Gender, Class and Race Define Citizenship and the New Deal

This project starts with an examination of Kentucky women’s experiences in the 20s and 30s.  The “New Woman” expectations from the turn of the century greatly influenced the role of women after suffrage was won.  Women’s volunteerism, civic activity and clubwork became more professionalized just as the economy tanked. The migration of families from rural parts of the state to urban centers and the rise of women in wage-earning, professional jobs in the twentieth century is critical to the understanding of the role of the civil rights movement in Kentucky.  African American women were part of a mass out-migration from Kentucky in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating networks of kinship and acquaintance that became critical for those who stayed in Kentucky’s segregated urban areas.

Any behavior or expression of thought that seemed to threaten the culture of segregation was stamped with the label of “communism” and white supremacy became tied to American custom and tradition.  Racial violence in Kentucky had everything to do with gender – and rural or poor women were impacted as much as those in urban areas where law enforcement was more organized.  One of the most important changes to the rigid segregation by race in Kentucky came with the amendment of the 1904 Day Law in the 1930s when the NAACP won the right for African-American women to enroll in white women’s nursing schools.

Cromwell, Emma G. Citizenship: A Manual for Voters. Frankfort, Kentucky: Emma Guy Cromwell, 1920. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Citizenship, by Emma Guy Cromwell. David Garcia, Chris Logan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, 25 May 2008. Accessed 10 Sept. 2010. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25598/25598-h/25598-h.htm.
See annotations at Diigo.com group, KY women and civil right history

Breckinridge, Madeline McDowell. Revision of “My Old Kentucky Home”, found in Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge: A Leader in the New South. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1921.
See also “Equal Rights” list including the Breckinridge papers at the University of Kentucky Special Collections; and the“Association of Colored Woman’s Clubs”list of individuals in the Notable Kentucky African American Database, University of Kentucky Libraries.

Roaring 1920’s Concert Extravaganza.” The Roaring 1920’s Concert Extravaganza. 1996. Accessed 7 Sept. 2010. http://bestwebs.com/roaring1920/index.shtml.
See annotations at Diigo.com group, KY women and civil right history

Wilson, Jennie Hopkins. “Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky – Jennie Hopkins Wilson.” Kentucky Educational Television: Education, Public Affairs, Arts and Culture, Online Video. Ed. Betsy Brinson, Tracy K’Meyer, Arthur Rouse, and Joan Brannon. Kentucky Oral History Commission, 2001. Accessed 16 Sept. 2010. http://www.ket.org/civilrights/bio_jwilson.htm.
See annotations at Diigo.com group, KY women and civil right history

See also…
Video and transcripts of interview by Betsy Brinson with Jennie Wilson, catalog no. 21 E 17, “Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project,” Kentucky Historical Society, 2000. Accessed 16 September 2010. http://205.204.134.47/civil_rights_mvt/util.aspx?p=1&pid=15211. And, the full transcript of the oral history interview by Betsy Brinson with Alice and Jennie Wilson on August 17, 2000, is at http://205.204.134.47/civil_rights_mvt/media/KCRP.20.B.66.Wilson.pdf


1940s-50s
World War II, Conservatism and the Strains of Civil Rights in Kentucky–A Long Tradition of Protest

Many people think that women’s rights did not emerge until the 1970s yet there were many voices outlining the modern feminist agenda decades before then. Cold War anxieties and McCarthyism muffled many who otherwise would be remembered for their human rights work.  The numbers of NAACP branches grew in Kentucky after World War II – and Kentucky women led the local chapters who supported the NAACP-led litigations and other legal challenges critical for the achievement of equal rights.

At the same time, Kentucky women participated in direct action that addressed civil and human rights issues in other ways.  Younger women helped form local chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the 1940s and professional women gathered signatures for the Interracial Hospital Movement in 1950. Before the 1960s women activists were experienced in the use of economic boycotts and rallies.  Meanwhile conservative women encouraged the formation of White Citizens Councils or work for “Save Our Community” local groups to support segregation and its inherent sexism.

Grevious, Audrey. “Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky – Audrey Grevious.” Kentucky Educational Television: Education, Public Affairs, Arts and Culture, Online Video. Ed. Betsy Brinson, Tracy K’Meyer, Arthur Rouse, and Joan Brannon. Kentucky Oral History Commission, 2001. Accessed 16 Sept. 2010. http://www.ket.org/civilrights/bio_grevious.htm.

See also… Audrey Grevious, interview by Betsy Brinson, catalog no. 21 E 17, “Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project,” Kentucky Historical Society, 2000. Accessed 16 September 2010. http://205.204.134.47/civil_rights_mvt/util.aspx?p=1&pid=14984. And, the full transcript of the oral history interview with Audrey Grevious by Betsy Brinson on April 13, 1999, is available at http://205.204.134.47/civil_rights_mvt/media/KCRP.20.B.21.Grevious.pdf.

See also …
An Unsung Hero: Audrey Grevious by Larry Johnson of Lexington, KY
* “Women’s Groups and Organizations”list of individuals in the Notable Kentucky African American Database, University of Kentucky Libraries


1950s-60s
Kentucky Women and Civil Rights Leadership

In 1954 Anne Braden’s support of the Wade family trying to move into their new home in a white neighborhood in Louisville propelled Kentucky’s anti-communist hysteria to fever-pitch. A girl from an African-American family in Lexington applied to the all-white Lafayette High School for the summer session of 1955 and so began Kentucky’s public school desegregation.

Women of Kentucky had both subtle and direct influences on civil rights by their work within governing institutions, non-government organizations and clubs.  In the 1920s and ’30s women of color as well as white women gained organizational stature in local, regional and national arenas. By the 1940s, Kentucky women’s public roles helped to alter society’s perspective on those roles, thus changing how their activism was documented and how history was written.  There were times in the 1940s and ’50s when women activists appeared to be failures but their work displays their faith that discrimination on the basis of race and sex was a denial of equal protection of laws.

Sit-ins, stand-ins, work slow-downs and boycotts have long been strategies of protest used at personal, local and statewide levels.  The role of women in the student unrest of the 1960s in Kentucky has been only cursorily addressed – so this project is critical to building new knowledge in this area.  Certainly, women were critical in organizing voter registration and election campaigns, protests against segregated public accommodations, and the 1964 March on Frankfort for an open housing law. Nationally, the congressional debates, summits, presidential interventions and news media coverage of the civil rights movement reached a peak by 1965-66.

Braden, Anne. “Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky – Anne Braden.” Kentucky Educational Television: Education, Public Affairs, Arts and Culture, Online Video. Ed. Betsy Brinson, Tracy K’Meyer, Arthur Rouse, and Joan Brannon. Kentucky Oral History Commission, 2001. Accessed 16 Sept. 2010. http://www.ket.org/civilrights/bio_braden.htm.

See also… Anne Braden, interview by Betsy Brinson, catalog no. 21 E 9, “Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project,” Kentucky Historical Society, 2000. Accessed 16 September 2010. http://205.204.134.47/civil_rights_mvt/util.aspx?p=1&pid=15540.


1960s-70s
From Civil Rights to Black Nationalism, Women’s Liberation and Black Feminist Organizations

Georgia Davis Powers, December 2, 2010

Senator Georgia Davis Powers, UK AASRP Race Dialogues, M.L.King, Jr. Cultural Center, December 2, 2010

The Vietnam War brought about new anxieties that the activists of the 1960s and ’70s had to contend with, and Kentucky women can be found on both sides of the debate. Though the Kentucky legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, it took a female acting governor to veto an attempt to overturn it. Labor unions relied on women to win their most difficult battles in a state friendly to business and industry leaders. Marginalized in their professions, ostracized socially, hounded by law enforcement agencies or even indicted for sedition, women’s rights activists of the early and mid-twentieth century fought hard for the rights and privileges that eventually came to fruition in the 1970s.

The status of women became a regular research topic for the governor’s office and the Kentucky Commission on Women was formed in this time period to serve all Kentuckians. Both white and black women’s clubs waivered indecisively between social activism and exclusivity of membership.  Meanwhile, small grassroots organizations devoted to peace and justice issues purposefully moved out of their ethnic or class enclaves to reach out to communities and organizations different from themselves.

UK history students listening to Senator Powers

UK history students listen to Sen. Powers

Georgia Davis Powers and J.J. Jackson

UK V-P J.J. Jackson thanks Sen. Powers

Sonja Feist-Price and Georgia Davis Powers

Dr. Sonja Feist-Price thanks Sen. Powers

James Montgomery, brother of Georgia Davis Powers

James Montgomery, brother of Sen. Powers

Georgia Davis Powers at UK, December 2, 2011Powers, Georgia Davis. “Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky – Georgia Davis Powers.” Kentucky Educational Television: Education, Public Affairs, Arts and Culture, Online Video. Ed. Betsy Brinson, Tracy K’Meyer, Arthur Rouse, and Joan Brannon. Kentucky Oral History Commission, 2001. Accessed 16 Sept. 2010. http://www.ket.org/civilrights/bio_powers.htm.

See also… Georgia Davis Powers, interview by Betsy Brinson, catalog no. 21 E 6, “Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project,” Kentucky Historical Society, 2000. Accessed 16 September 2010. http://205.204.134.47/civil_rights_mvt/util.aspx?p=1&pid=15542.

Eleanor Jordan at votes for Women Rally, August 26, 2010

Eleanor Jordan, Executive Director of Kentucky Commission on Women, Votes for Women Rally, August 26, 2010

 

 


1970s
Conservative Voices, Submerged Activism and Women’s Legacy of Civil Rights in Kentucky

The 1980s birthed a new ultra-conservative climate and hate groups sought out women recruits particularly vulnerable from the difficult economic times and the loss of governmental support during crisis times.  And, in 1983 Kentucky gained her first woman governor, and the 1980s experienced an upswing in women’s representation in local and state government not seen in later years.

Women’s access to political and economic power resided in many other places than what meagre opportunities won with white women’s suffrage in 1920. We can re-imagine the terrain of women’s history by looking first at what happened here in Kentucky in the 20th century.  The complexities in the stories of women of color and white women who worked together and separately highlighted the intersectionality of race, class and gender in Kentucky women’s history.

This project undertakes the difficult task of finding ways by which women overcame the legal traditions of denying full citizenship, including access to control over their own property and their own earnings, custody of their children, juries drawn from a full cross section of their communities, loss of rights as citizens when married to a foreign man.  A social movement, the battle for civil and human rights ultimately happens when people’s habits and thoughts change even if deeply rooted in traditions.

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