JOHN M. MURPHY
For forty years, Laura Clay was an active woman's rights advocate, Democratic party politician, and social reformer in the state of Kentucky and throughout the South. She has seldom been recognized for her accomplishments, however, because of her philosophical commitment to a strict construction of the Constitution. Like many southern Democrats, Clay's political positions flowed directly from her view that the powers of government should be strictly limited. She supported woman suffrage as a necessary check on the power of patriarchal government to oppress women. Her adherence to the doctrine of states' rights, however, led her to oppose the Susan B. Anthony (later the nineteenth) Amendment to the Constitution enfranchising women because, while granting women the vote, it gave the federal government unchecked powers to supervise state elections. This position resulted in her estrangement from the movement's mainstream. Nonetheless, she deserves critical attention because she articulated an alternative rationale for woman's rights, a justification grounded primarily in a profound distrust of unchecked power of any sort.
Clay was born on February 9, 1849, to a prominent and affluent Kentucky family. Her father Cassius M. Clay was a cousin of Henry Clay and an outspoken abolitionist who later served Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant as ambassador to Russia. Her mother Mary Jane Warfield was from a prominent family in Lexington and was an active supporter of woman's rights. After Ambassador Clay deserted his family, which resulted in a messy, public divorce in 1878, Mary Warfield Clay rejuvenated the family farms and provided for the education of her daughters. Clay's older sisters married late in life and served the cause of woman suffrage with distinction; Mary B. Clay, for instance, was AWSA president in 1883-1884 ( HWS 4:407).
Laura Clay followed the family tradition of independent thought and devotion to the public good. She remained single, dividing her time between suffrage work and shrewd management of a 245-acre farm. She graduated from the Sayre Female Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, a school for girls with an unusually broad curriculum; she studied mathematics, history, English literature, and philosophy in addition to the standard women's classes. She attended a finishing school in New York, and she later attended the University of Michigan for a year and the State College of Kentucky (now Transylvania University) for a semester. Because of her growing commitment to the woman suffrage movement, she never finished her college degree ( Fuller, 1975).