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New Kentucky books on United States Senators, women’s suffrage provide sharp focus for 2021


By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to KyForward

The end of any year causes us to reflect upon what we’ve accomplished, as well as what we resolve to do in the coming New Year. If social media and casual conversational remarks are any indication, this year—2020—is one that many people would prefer to forget.

Of course, we all know deep down that forgetting 2020 will never be possible, and indeed, would be neither sensible nor advisable. That is because 2020 has already claimed its own role as one of the major actors on history’s stage. Rattled and unnerved by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing challenges in nearly every aspect of our lives, from the way we work, learn, shop, worship and play to economic and political repercussions. All along the way, we are learning to adapt. At the other end of our problems, we hope that the lessons we learn will make us stronger and better equipped to face whatever challenges may await us in the future.

Cover of Paul Whalen’s new book.

The year 2020 is a textbook example of how history refuses to be static, literally unleashing surprises at us whenever we least expect them. In fact, each generation rediscovers history through the lenses of its own experience, often marked by crises. In many ways, that is the principal way that we learn as humans. We apply our experiences to our growth as both individuals and as collective citizens of the United States.

Each generation has its own defining moments. For my father’s generation, those included the Great Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, World War II, and the assassination of President Kennedy. For my own generation, the Cold War, Civil Rights, and 9/11 affected us in deep and meaningful ways.

For earlier generations, the War for American Independence, the Civil War, Reconstruction, World War I, and the battle for woman’s suffrage proved important defining moments. Like us, each generation has inherited a constitutional framework of government to help us manage the challenges that we face. We are called to maintain a precious balance of power between our legislative, executive and judicial branches. In turn, our bicameral (two-house) legislative branch has balances of its own, as seen in the special powers enumerated to the US House of Representatives and the US Senate respectively.

Paul L. Whalen’s Profiles of Kentucky’s United States Senators, 1792-Present (Morley, MO: Acclaim Press, 2020; $29.95) fills an important gap in understanding the 66 men who have served as US Senators representing Kentucky, from 1792 until the present day. As the first complete source of information on all of Kentucky’s US Senators, it will prove an important reference book for generations to come.

Whalen provides an overview essay outlining the evolution of the US Senate, and the role of its Kentucky senators in that rich heritage. A number of Kentucky’s US Senators have exercised national political power. They include: Henry Clay, John J. Crittenden, John White Stevenson, James B. Beck, John G. Carlisle, Alben W. Barkley, Earle Clements, John Sherman Cooper, Wendell Ford, and Mitch McConnell. Readers wishing to gain a sense of these more influential and well-known politicians would be advised to start with their biographical sketches first. This is easy to do, as Whalen’s book is arranged chronologically. Meanwhile, those interested in US Senators from Northern Kentucky will enjoy reading the biographical sketches of John W. Stevenson, John G. Carlisle, Richard P. Ernst, and Jim Bunning.

Cover of Melanie Goan’s new book.

Sadly, as of 2020, no woman has ever represented Kentucky in the US Senate. That fact might give us the false impression that somehow Kentucky has lagged in crusading for women’s rights. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as Melanie Beals Goan demonstrates in her new book, A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2020; $32.95).

Goan’s book is timely, published in commemoration of the centennial of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote in the United States. Dr. Goan is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and a specialist in women’s history. Formerly, she authored Mary Breckinridge: The Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), and was a contributing author to Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times (University of Georgia Press, 2015).

Other than Paul Fuller’s pioneering Laura Clay and the Woman’s Rights Movement (University Press of Kentucky, 1975) and Claudia Knott’s informative doctoral dissertation entitled “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Kentucky, 1879-1920” (University of Kentucky, 1989), there have been few publications dedicated to the history of woman’s suffrage in Kentucky. Melanie Goan’s work closes the gap.

From the experience they gained in the abolitionist movement to the full-fledged woman’s suffrage efforts of the late-nineteenth and the early-twentieth centuries, Kentucky women proved relentless and courageous. The Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA), and women’s rights leaders Mary Barr Clay, Laura Clay, Josephine Henry, Eugenia Farmer, and many others championed the right to vote. Their struggle encountered misogynism, racism, and other ugly antagonisms along the way.

Moan’s account benefits from her ability to connect events in Kentucky with those on the national level. Her utilization of a vast array of resources, from primary and secondary documents to archival collections, enriches the story.

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.


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