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Rep. Lisa Willner to Gov. Beshear: House Democratic Women’s Caucus wants women considered for statue

A letter to Governor Andy Beshear:

As chair of the Kentucky House Democratic Women’s Caucus, and on behalf of our 19 members, I first want to thank you for leading the way in the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue from the Capitol Rotunda.  This divisive symbol made the “People’s House” a less-than-welcome place for more than 80 years, and as you said on the day the statue was taken down, its absence is “a step forward for the betterment of every single Kentuckian.”

The removal is only half of the story, of course; now, we must find someone who is truly worthy of standing in that hallowed space. That is why we are writing to you today, because we believe strongly it must be a woman. This would mean so much to the women who work and serve as elected officials in the Capitol and the untold thousands of women and girls who will visit in the decades ahead.

Rep. Lisa Willner

Kentucky is fortunate to have had numerous women who made a lasting difference nationally and improved the commonwealth in immeasurable ways. The list below is just a start, and we would be glad to discuss these era-defining women or any others with you, the Historic Properties Advisory Commission, or whatever group may be formed to determine who should be permanently commemorated.

Those we believe should be considered for that honor include:

• State Senator Georgia Powers, who was the first woman and the first person of color elected to that chamber. She was a leading voice in the civil rights movement, including serving as an organizer for the famous march on Frankfort in 1964 that paved the way for Kentucky to become the first southern state to enact civil rights legislation.

• Mary Elliott Flannery, who was the first woman elected to a state legislature south of the Mason-Dixon Line. She won the seat in 1921, just one year after the ratification of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.

• Anne Braden, another civil rights champion. Her advocacy and steadfast willingness to fight for racial justice made her an icon in Jefferson County and across the country.

• Alice Dunnigan, the first African-American woman to have a Capitol press pass in Washington, D.C., and also the first African-American woman to lead the Women’s National Press Club.  This Russellville native began her journalism career when she was just 14, writing a weekly column for an Owensboro newspaper.

• bell hooks, a well-known author, feminist scholar, and social activist who maintains a strong presence in Kentucky through an institute named in her honor at Berea College.

• Anna Mae Clark, who became the first African-American woman to be a commanding officer of an otherwise white regiment in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. 

• Alberta Odell Jones, a civil-rights leader who was one of the first African-American women to pass the bar in Kentucky and the first African-American woman named city attorney in Jefferson County.  Her young life ended tragically with a murder that is still unsolved.

• Governor Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky’s only woman governor and just the seventh to hold that title nationally at the time of her election in 1983.  Another lasting legacy is her recruitment of Toyota to the commonwealth.

We believe this list provides a strong starting point for consideration as Kentucky begins determining who should be permanently represented in the Capitol Rotunda.

Until that process is complete, we also believe that the newly vacant space should be used to highlight an array of noteworthy Kentuckians as part of a rotating educational display. It’s time for that corner of the Rotunda to tell us more about Kentuckians who sought to unite rather than divide us. We believe this should especially focus on those Kentuckians who have been under-represented in the Capitol – women and people of color. Seeing oneself reflected in those being honored would mean so much to so many who have for too long been invisible, and at times even erased from our history.

Again, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss these important matters further with you and your staff, and to play any role that would help to make this statue, and an interim rotating display, into realities.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Lisa Willner
State Representative, 35th District
Chair, House Democratic Women’s Caucus


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