Academic Programs

Kentucky Women

  • Anne McCarty Braden

    Anne McCarty Braden(1924–2006)

    In the summer of 1954 a charge of dynamite destroyed a house occupied by African-Americans Andrew and Charlotte Wade in a white suburb of Louisville. The blast turned upside down the life of a young white woman who, with her husband, had recently bought the house on behalf of their black friends, in defiance of racially restricted real estate policies. Within a few months, Anne Braden, a journalist and local integration activist born into a genteel Kentucky family and reared in the Deep South, would find herself in the national spotlight—jailed, charged with sedition against the state of Kentucky, and discredited as a "Red" in newspaper headlines.

    Unlike many victims of the anti-communist “witch hunt,” however, Anne Braden did not retreat into silence. She was propelled into a lifetime of civil rights activism that now spans half of the twentieth century. While her husband  remained jailed, she left their two young children with her parents and toured the country to raise his bond, using their case as a platform to inform civil liberties supporters nationwide of the links being made in the South between efforts to challenge segregation and charges of communist subversion.

    Carl Braden’s conviction and prison sentence were overturned by a 1956 Supreme Court ruling invalidating state sedition laws. Unable to find employment in Louisville, the Bradens refused to be driven out for their beliefs. In 1957 they became paid field organizers of a small civil rights group, the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), taking on the lonely task of generating white southern support for black civil rights amid a climate of massive resistance.

    When student sit-ins that ultimately broke segregation began in 1960, Anne Braden was one of the few role models for young white women who rebelled against their culture by joining the civil rights movements, and the Breaden house became a gathering spot for student activists.

    Anne Braden devoted her life to racial and economic justice. She spent the decades of the 70s and 80s helping to break what she called the southern “police state,” which stifled dissent on a range of social issues. Later in her life she evolved from a pariah to a heroine, and in 1990 she was selected to receive the first annual American Civil Liberties Union Medal of Liberty.

    E. K. Potter, Kentucky Women

  • Helen Humes

    Martha Purdon Comer(1913—1981)

    By the age of five, Helen Humes was singing and performing in Bessie Allen’s Marching Band in Louisville. At 14, Sylvester Weaver, one of the band’s former members and the musician credited as the first blues guitarist, introduced Helen Humes to a producer at Okeh Records. She recorded several tunes, including “Cross-Eyed Blues,” but her recording career was cut short by her mother’s insistence that she complete her studies.

    After graduation, Humes worked for a short time in her father’s law office as a secretary, singing locally in the evenings. By 1937, her aspirations to perform had taken her as far away as Albany, N.Y. While performing with the Al Sears band at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati, Humes was spotted by “The King of Swing,” Count Basie. He invited her to replace Billie Holiday and join his band as a singer, but she declined because she didn’t want to venture too far from home. The following year, Count Basie again invited her to join his band, and this time she accepted. Helen Humes left the Count Basie Orchestra in 1942 and settled in California. She worked with various bands and wrote and recorded “Be-baba-leba,” which was a commercial hit.

    Humes recorded tunes for films and television and appeared in the Hollywood production of Langston Hughes’ play Simply Heaven.

    E. K. Potter, Kentucky Women

  • Mary Edith Engle

    Mary Edith Engleb. 1917

    During World War II, Mary Engle served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS. These women were selected to fly military planes, often new and untested, from factories in the U.S. to bases where men could train with them.

    Engle and her husband, "Billy Bob" Engle, were already accomplished pilots by the time war broke out. Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Billy Bob volunteered for service, and it seemed natural to Mary Edith to volunteer as well. With her flying experience, she was quickly accepted into the newly formed group of female pilots.

    From 1942 to 1944, about 1,073 WASPS logged 60 million air miles, flying new planes and war-battered aircraft, a perilous task that took the lives of 38 of the women. Not having military status, they paid for their own transportation and housing during training.

    In 1943, Mary Edith Engle graduated from training in Texas and spent more than a year flying planes all over the United States and Canada. In 1997 Engle was one of five aviators inducted into a charter enshrinement of the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame.

    E. K. Potter, Kentucky Women

  • Eleanor Jordan

    Eleanor Jordanb. 1953

    Eleanor Jordan does what she believes is important. In 1993, disappointed in the performance of her Louisville alderman, who had been in office 12 years, she ran against him. She came within 97 votes of winning her first political contest. In 1996, when Kentucky Rep. Leonard Gray left his post, he handpicked Jordan to succeed him. Her family wasn't thrilled with the idea of another campaign, but she won the special election. Gritty realism and her personal frame of reference helped her get results as a legislator.

    Jordan served as a representative until 2000 and then was appointed by Gov. Paul Patton as the ombudsman for the Cabinet for Families and Children. In 2008 Gov. Steve Beshear appointed Jordan as the executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women.

    E. K. Potter, Kentucky Women

  • Madeline McDowell Breckinridge

    Madeline McDowell Breckinridge(1872–1920)

    Madeline McDowell Breckenridge, who was elected president of the Lexington Associated Charities in 1903, was heavily involved in the organization's creation and remained a lifelong member. The Associated Charities was established in 1900 in response to a call from the mayor to the “Ladies of Lexington” for help in managing the demands for relief that resulted form severe weather that year. Breckinridge, a strong advocate of women’s suffrage, wrote a weekly women’s page in the Lexington Herald that “was not to be given wholly to discussing fashion…instead anything from cabbages to politics will be treated.”

    In 1905, when the Associated Charities and the local unit of the Salvation Army failed to find a means of working together, Madeline Breckinridge started what was to become a 12-year battle with the Salvation Army, which culminated in a court action. In 1914, she initiated a series of editorials in response to Salvation Army solicitations published in the Lexington Leader, the Herald’s competitor. The predominant theme in Breckinridge’s attacks was the Salvation Army's lack of investigation and scrutiny of relief cases. Like others adopting the values of scientific charity, Breckinridge believed that the profligacy and inefficiencies of the Army's relief efforts would lead to dependency and increased poverty among those in need. Breckinridge escalated her battle by seeking court action against the city of Lexington for its allocation of $720 to the Army in order to expand its emergency shelter.

    By the mid-1930s, even the Salvation Army had begun to adopt the practices associated with scientific charity. These same principles contribute to the conservative rhetoric that dominates discussion of social welfare reform today.

    E. K. Potter, Kentucky Women

  • Laura Clay

    Laura Clay(1849–1941)

    Clay was in the forefront of suffrage organizing in the South. She founded the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) in 1888, which was the region’s first permanent suffrage organization, and she served as an officer in the national association from 1896 to 1911. As a suffrage leader on the local, state, regional, and national levels, Laura Clay occupied a pivotal position within the movement and participated in nearly every controversy it faced.

    It was within the setting of secure, white Democratic control that Clay founded KERA and that the legislature granted school board suffrage in 1894 to all women in the state’s second-class cities of Newport, Covington, and Lexington. The Fayette County Equal Rights Association, which Clay also helped found and over which she presided, actually sought to register black women for the school board elections.

    Clay was also active in the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs and the women’s Christian Temperance Union as part of her advocacy efforts for women and children. She believed in the rights of women to participate in church leadership and was instrumental in gaining female membership on the vestry and synod of the Episcopal diocese of Lexington.

    E. K. Potter, Kentucky Women

  • Martha Purdon Comer

    Martha Purdon Comer(1906–2003)

    Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame

    It was luck, some of it bad luck, that got Martha Comer into the newspaper business. By the time she was a high school senior, her father was at the helm of The Ledger- Independent in Maysville, Ky. She had a job there the summer she graduated, where she collected the Associated Press news that came over the wire from Cincinnati. For a time she attended college but she returned to the newspaper to continue her life as a reporter.

    Then came tragedy. Comer’s brother died unexpectedly on the operating table, and, suddenly, Comer found herself taking over his responsibilities as editor of the newspaper. In no time, she was running the show and life got very interesting. Comer’s 40-year career at The Ledger-Independent gave her access to people and information that few women in her day shared. She was one of the first journalists invited to John F. Kennedy’s White House, and she traveled with a contingent to Germany to convince German enterprises to do business in Kentucky.

    E. K. Potter, Kentucky Women

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