Teachers in the rotunda crowd together to sing and chant against House and Senate Bills. Photo by Emma E.P. Presnell
Teachers in the rotunda crowd together to sing and chant against House and Senate Bills. Photo by Emma “E.P.” Presnell

Kentucky’s trailblazing women in politics

Many Manual students have either met or heard of Attica Scott. She’s a member of Manual’s Class of 1990, was the first black woman in roughly 20 years to serve in the state legislature and was recently inducted in the 2019 Hall of Fame.

But she didn’t get there by accident. Here are four Kentucky women who paved the way for Scott’s success.

Lieutenant Governor Thelma Stovall (1919-1994)

As the child of a single mother during the Great Depression, Thelma Stovall knew the hard work and sacrifice it took to get ahead. At fifteen, she moved to Louisville for work to help support her family. As a factory worker, Stovall gained a passion for organized labor that stayed with her, and began her relationship with Kentucky labor unions.

In 1950 Stovall made history by becoming the first woman to be elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives. She was elected Kentucky’s Secretary of State in 1956 after three terms in the House, serving three terms there as well. Just as she was elected, both Kentucky’s Governor and Lieutenant Governor were together out of the state and Stovall became the acting governor for a short time. In that time she pardoned a prisoner who had been sentenced to life in prison for stealing $28.

She then served two terms as Kentucky Treasurer and in 1975 was elected Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky, the first female to fill the position. She proceeded to use her position to promote equality and women’s rights throughout the Commonwealth.

Stovall ran for Governor in 1979 and experienced the first loss of her career. She was appointed Kentucky’s Commissioner of Labor by the man who had defeated her and won the election, John Y. Brown, Jr.

Governor Martha Layne Collins (1936-Present)

Martha Layne Collins was born in Shelby County and became Kentucky’s first female Governor in 1984. Originally a public school teacher, Collins began her career as a clerk for the Kentucky Supreme Court in 1975 and went on to become Kentucky Lieutenant Governor four years later.

In 1984 the Democratic National Committee chose her to chair the Democratic National Convention. As Governor, Collins focused on economic growth as well as public education, and worked to institute a school improvement package of $300 million and a new Toyota automobile plant in Georgetown. After retiring from politics, Collins returned to her roots in education as President of St. Catherine’s College.

Senator Georgia Davis Powers (1923-2016)

The first African American to be elected to Kentucky’s State Senate, Georgia Davis Powers held office for 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, during which she fought diligently for civil rights of women and black Kentuckians in more than 40 bills. Powers was a close companion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and was with him on the day he died.

Dr. Grace James (1923-1989)

Dr. Grace James was the first African American woman to earn a position on the University of Louisville School of Medicine’s faculty. She was also the first African American woman to gain membership to the Jefferson County Medical Society, facing racism and sexism from her white male colleagues all the while.

James opened her pediatrics practice in Louisville in 1953 during a time of segregation, when even the hospitals were required to be segregated. Despite this, James founded the West Louisville Health Education Program and headed the Council on Urban Education, educating young people of all races and encouraging them to become medical doctors and overcome discrimination.

Featured image by Emma “E.P.” Presnell.

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