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Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South

Melba Hay

Publication Year: 2009

Preeminent Kentucky reformer and women’s rights advocate Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1872–1920) was at the forefront of social change during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A descendant of Henry Clay and the daughter of two of Kentucky’s most prominent families, Breckinridge had a remarkably varied activist career that included roles in the promotion of public health, education, women’s rights, and charity. Founder of the Lexington Civic League and Associated Charities, Breckinridge successfully lobbied to create parks and playgrounds and to establish a juvenile court system in Kentucky. She also became president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, served as vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and even campaigned across the country for the League of Nations. In the first biography of Breckinridge since 1921, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South, Melba Porter Hay draws on newly discovered correspondence and rich personal interviews with her female associates to illuminate the fascinating life of this important Kentucky activist. Deftly balancing Breckinridge’s public reform efforts with her private concerns, Hay tells the story of Madeline’s marriage to Desha Breckinridge, editor of the Lexington Herald, and how she used the match to her advantage by promoting social causes in the newspaper. Hay also chronicles Breckinridge’s ordeals with tuberculosis and amputation, and emotionally trying episodes of family betrayal and sex scandals. Hay describes how Breckinridge’s physical struggles and personal losses transformed her from a privileged socialite into a selfless advocate for the disadvantaged. Later as vice president of the National American Women Suffrage Association, Breckinridge lobbied for Kentucky’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. While devoting much of her life to the woman suffrage movement on the local and national levels, she also supported the antituberculosis movement, social programs for the poor, compulsory school attendance, and laws regulating child labor. In bringing to life this extraordinary reformer, Hay shows how Breckinridge championed Kentucky’s social development during the Progressive Era.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Topics in Kentucky History

Front cover

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge is one of the most important figures in the history of Kentucky as well as a major figure in the interconnected histories of the Progressive Era and the woman suffrage movement in the United States. She contributed to the enactment of Progressive reforms and the success of woman suffrage at every level: local, state, and ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Since I began this project more than thirty-five years ago, I have incurred more debts than can possibly be acknowledged. It began in 1972 in a graduate history seminar after Professor Richard Lowitt suggested Madeline McDowell Breckinridge as a possible topic for a paper. I quickly became enthralled by the subject—her personality, the scope of her career, and her ...

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1: "One great honored name" 1872-1889

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pp. 1-19

Sitting back from a road that winds through the heart of the Bluegrass between Frankfort and Georgetown rests a large two-story house surrounded by trees, with rolling fields on all sides. Stone gates on the edge of the highway read “Woodlake.” In this calm, serene setting in Franklin County, Kentucky, Madeline McDowell was born on May 20, 1872. She ...

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2: "A thunder-bolt out of a clear sky" 1890-1896

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pp. 20-46

Back in Lexington in the summer of 1890, eighteen-year-old Madge Mc-Dowell resumed her active social life. She suffered a near-serious mishap in her cart when the pony Cigarette ran away with her. Her brother had envisioned her driving into town “in her glory all summer,” but that expectation vanished after Cigarette’s “foolishness.”1 Then, during the Christmas season, Madge’s life changed forever. ...

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3: "An unholy interest in reforming others" 1897-1900

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pp. 47-71

The knowledge that her days on earth might be cut short seemed only to spur Madge to live life to the fullest and make every minute count as she launched into a wide range of activities. In 1897 she joined John Fox Jr. in an effort to assist Robert Burns Wilson by raising a subscription to publish a collection of his works. Wilson’s The Shadows of the Trees and...

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4: "Our hope lies in the children" 1901-1904

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pp. 72-98

From 1901 to 1904 Madge began to build upon many of the ideas that she had already developed and publicized in the Herald. In most instances she worked with one of the newly formed organizations—the Civic League, the Associated Charities, or the Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky. The latter had formed in 1894 as part of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s ...

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5: "Whatever a woman can do . . . in the long run she will do" 1905-1907

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pp. 99-128

As a new year, 1905, dawned, Madge’s activities reached a frenzy. Had the probable stroke she suffered in Colorado convinced her that she had only a short time in which to achieve her goals? Or perhaps she sub-merged her fears for the future in work so that she would not have time to think. Whatever her motives, she was not content simply to continue ...

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6: "Educational advance and school suffrage for women go hand in hand" 1908-1911

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pp. 129-150

The 1908 meeting of the Kentucky General Assembly proved to be one of the most momentous in the state’s history, with school suffrage for women and reform of the commonwealth’s public education system among the issues dominating the session. These causes also headed Madge’s reform agenda, and she expected to play a major part in lobby-...

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7: "Among the most brilliant advocates of votes for women in this country" 1912-1913

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pp. 151-169

The year 1912 opened with a high degree of excitement for Madge and Desha as they traveled to Frankfort in January for the crucial meeting of the legislature. Madge had done her utmost to see that the school suffrage bill would pass and optimistically anticipated success. Nevertheless, she remained in the capital for several days, making speeches and lobbying ...

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8: "An able speaker, a brilliant woman" 1914-1915

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pp. 170-191

In 1914 Madge determined to work with even greater zeal for suffrage on both the state and national level. As Sophonisba noted, Madge “was not sure that only through the federal amendment would all the women of the United States become politically free, but she was perfectly willing to obtain the vote by that method.” Yet she never forgot that both congress-...

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9: "I cannot keep her from doing more than she ought to do" 1916-1918

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pp. 192-214

Although exhausted from her three years as president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association and ill with tuberculosis, Madge Breckinridge seemingly approached the 1916 legislative session with the same zeal and determination as always. Upon relinquishing the presidency of KERA, she accepted the position of legislative campaign chair, which gave her the ...

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10: Kentucky's "most distinguished woman citizen" 1919-1920

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pp. 215-236

After being pronounced cured of tuberculosis in autumn 1918, Madge Breckinridge felt reinvigorated and eager to move forward for the cause of woman suffrage. The international influenza epidemic had caused the annual KERA convention to be postponed until the following spring, and when it met in March 1919, Madge again became president. Prospects ...

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Epilogue: "She belonged to Kentucky"

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pp. 237-248

News of Madge’s death shocked her friends and allies—and, indeed, all who knew her. That spirit, that determination, that force for good, was no more. Uncertainty gripped Lexingtonians. What would happen to the organizations she had led for so long? Who would assume leadership? Would her legacy endure? Her dominant role in civic affairs became clear when on December 5, 1920, the Herald published several pages of tributes to her from...


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pp. 249-268


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pp. 269-318


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pp. 319-334


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pp. 335-354

E-ISBN-13: 9780813173269
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125329

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Topics in Kentucky History