Laura Clay was born February 9, 1849, at White Hall estate near Richmond Kentucky, the daughter of emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay and Mary Jane Warfield Clay. She attended Foxtown Academy in her early years. Spent several months in Russia, when her father was stationed there, returning to Kentucky in February 1862. Laura graduated from Lexington’s Sayre School in 1865. She also attended Hoffman’s Finishing School in New York, graduating in 1866. She attended one year at the University of Michigan in 1879, and the University of Kentucky (then called Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical College).
Laura was parented in large part by her mother, as her father was absent much of the time while pursuing his career. In 1878 after forty-five years of marriage, Cassius and Mary Jane divorced. Her father’s infidelity was the final blow to the struggling marriage. Cassius Clay sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion by his wife and her mother did not contest the suit. While she was allowed to keep their last minor child with her, Cassius was hard nosed about their property. Although Mary Jane had managed White Hall in her husband’s absence, she was left with no share in the property. If not for a trust left herby her parents, Laura’s mother would have been left with nothing. Witnessing this injustice led Laura to a lifelong support of women’s rights and probably explains why she never married. She and her sisters—Mary Barr Clay, Annie Clay, and Sallie Clay—all became supporters of the woman suffrage movement. In the early years, her sisters were more active in the movement. It was not until 1888, that Laura took a large role.
Laura became financially independent through the management of a 300-acre farm in Madison County that she leased from her father and later owned after his death. She spent much of her income in support of women’s rights.
In 1888 Clay founded the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) and served as its president until 1912. During its first decade KERA achieved a number of legislative victories, successfully lobbying the Kentucky General Assembly for laws granting married women the right to control their own property and wages, the right of co-guardianship of minor children, requiring female physicians in state female insane asylums, and admitting women to several state colleges and universities. In 1912 KERA successfully lobbied for a law allowing women to vote in school elections. Laura was very active in lobbying Frankfort and around the state for these changes.
Laura Clay also served as an officer in the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and used these organizations to further women’s rights. As a member of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), she campaigned for suffrage in Oregon, Oklahoma, and Arizona. During the 1890s she became one of the leading suffragists in the South and helped found nine suffrage societies in southern states. For fifteen years she served as auditor of NAWSA. In 1916 she became vice president of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Association, which was dedicated to winning woman suffrage only by state constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, she continued to support NAWSA, but as it increasingly advocated an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, she became estranged from the organization and withdrew in 1919. A strong advocate of states’ rights, she likewise withdrew from KERA after its board endorsed the federal amendment, which provided that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any States on account of sex” and gave Congress the “power, by appropriate legislation, to enforce the provision of this article.” Ironically, she then turned her energies toward defeating the federal amendment, arguing that it would provide Congress with the opportunity to intervene in state elections for purely political purposes.
After the suffrage amendment’s ratification as the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Laura continued her pursuit of women’s rights by helping to organize the Democratic Women’s Club of Kentucky in 1920. That year she also became the first woman in history to have her name placed in nomination for president of the United States by a major political party. She ran unsuccessfully for the state senate in 1923 and in 1928 made speeches on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee, Alfred E. Smith, vigorously denouncing national prohibition. When Kentucky voted for repeal of prohibition in 1933, she served as temporary chair of the ratifying convention. She carried her belief in women’s rights into her church associations, helping women win the right to serve in the vestry and synod of the Episcopal church.
Clay disappeared from the public scene in the 1930s to live the rest of her life in privacy. Her home, had once been the home of John Bradford, located at the corner of Second and Mill Streets in Lexington, KY. She died on June 29, 1941, and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery.