A Celebration of Women Writers

"Woman's Work in Kentucky." by Mrs. Eugenia Dunlap Potts.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 562-568.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 562] 



What has woman done for Kentucky, for that romantic young daughter of grand old Virginia, the throes of whose birth rang out in Indian bloodshed and violence, who waded step by step in conflict and courage before the dark and bloody ground could put on her fair garment of nature's brilliant hues, and ever going from this nursery of relentless discipline stand up in the rank of royal Columbia's children a queen in her own right, clothed in the panoply of her own inalienable virtues and beauty. She has been called "God's own country." 'Twas woman who helped to make her what she is, and a woman gave her the name. What then has woman done and how has she done it?

Ruskin says: "A woman has a personal work and duty relating to her own home and a public work and duty which is also the expansion of that. The woman's work in her own home is to secure its order, comfort and loveliness. The woman's duty as a member of the commonwealth is to assist in the ordering, in the comforting, and in the beautiful adornment of the state. What the woman is to be within her gates as the center of order, the balm of distress and the mirror of beauty, that she is to be also without the gates where order is more difficult, distress more eminent and loveliness more rare."

Lord George Littleton, the English author and statesman of a hundred years ago, declared that "a woman's noblest station is retreat." Madame Roland, herself a remarkable type of the sex, held the opinion that the talents and acquirements of woman should never be for the public. It was about the time that she uttered this sentiment that the marvelous richness and vastness of Kentucky were drawing thither the highest and noblest elements of citizenship from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia, to become the pioneers of a race, strong, tender, heroic, simple, conservative and pure. These were the mothers of Anglo-Saxon blood who upheld by the holy ties of family and a lofty womanhood, were equipped with the armor of perpetual ownership. The fertile domain all rent with the red man's butchery–he who contested every inch of soil–soon knew the tread of gentle feet; and from the Rustic Parliament held under the Divine Elm at Boonesborough that mild May day in 1775, down through the years, woman has historic value in Kentucky. Rebecca Bryant Boone was there with her illustrious husband, whose statue, modeled in Kentucky clay by a Kentucky girl, stands guard at our Kentucky building, wearing the identical garb of that far away day. Enough is told of those early days of adventure, [Page 563]  of romance, of heroism, to make an epic as enchanting and inspiring as any of classic lore.

Susannah Hart, the aunt of Mrs. Henry Clay, raised and pulled the flax which she wove and spun into her wedding gown, with an art so clever that she could draw the width through her wedding ring. She belonged to the wealthiest of those early families of note, and was the wife of Gov. Isaac Shelby. She died at the age of seventy-two years at "Travelers' Rest," the grand old homestead which has never passed out of the Shelby family. She was the mother of ten children, and her descendants are widely scattered. Mary Hopkins Cabell Breckinridge was a contemporary whose work can never die. Hers were not deeds of daring nor of tragic from the lurking Indian. Her power was in her eloquent conversation, her strong opinions, her decided views of duty. Her sons are orators and statesmen; her daughters are ambitious and progressive. Margaret Breckinridge, a granddaughter, devoted heart and hands to hospital work during the war of the Blue and the Grey; and by her gentle, self-sacrificing ministering was named the "Angel of the hospitals." She said, "Shall men die by thousands for their country and no woman risk her life?" Still a younger generation is led by Miss Sophronisba Breckinridge, who after years of travel in Europe, studied law in her father's office. Mrs. Catherine Hunt, the chatelaine of one of Lexington's proud homes, reigned a queen in her domain. The train of servants, the management of her handsome estate and all the demands upon the mistress of such possessions, called for executive ability of rare degree. Hers was the thinking head and the guiding hand. The Baroness Burdett Coutts says: "Woman may be allowed to lead in acts of charity," and right nobly has she set this example. This woman, Mrs. Hunt, used her prerogative here. Sixty-one years ago, when cholera wellnigh depopulated the Blue Grass capital, she went forth on pious mission bent. Coming upon three desolate little children, whose parents lay dead, she said to a friend: "What shall we do with them? Let us buy them a home." She opened her purse and established the Orphans' Home, Lexington's oldest charitable institution, where many little feet have found a resting place. Mrs. Henrietta Hunt Morgan was her daughter, and the Hon. Francis Kay Hunt, of legal celebrity, was her worthy son. Mrs. Morgan presided over her household much after the manner of her bringing up. She was the mother of a remarkable family. Her sons were Gen. John Hunt Morgan, Col. Calvin Morgan, Capt. Charlton Hunt Morgan, and Lieut. Thomas Morgan. Her daughters were the wives of Gen. A. P. Hill and of Gen. Basil W. Duke. Behold the evolution of the Kentucky girl, if I may so term the greater liberty of today! Mrs. Henrietta Morgan Duke, of Louisville, Ky., one of our commissioners, is a woman of incomparable qualities of heart and brain. She reflects the grandmother and mother in strength of character and in executive ability. Times have changed, and she has risen to the demands. Her young daughter, Miss Carrie Duke, the violin virtuoso, represents the fourth generation of this family. The ancient code would have held her captive, but the liberty of the present sent her abroad to develop the divine genius that now sways multitudes. Another young descendant of Mrs. Hunt is Miss Lucy Lee Hill, a World's Fair Commissioner, who bravely and briskly went about the work of collecting exhibits; faithfully she has presided at the state building. Yet another great-granddaughter is Miss Eleanor Howard Morgan, daughter of Capt. Charlton Morgan, who entered Bryn Mawr College, where her scientist brother, Dr. Thomas Morgan, holds the chair of biology. This young girl perfectly illustrates the fact that developing a woman's brain does not necessarily rob her of feminine charm. No lily of the valley, breathing its delicate fragrance far below the gaze of man, is more modestly environed; yet her influence pervades all the atmosphere about her. She inherits, not the dash of her uncle, the cavalry chief, but the steady glow of woman's star when lit by the brilliancy of intellectual fire. After forty years of Kentucky civilization and the advance of commerce and education, in 1822 Susan Lucy Bary Taylor, only fifteen years old, read from the platform of the La Fayette [Page 564]  Academy, at Lexington, her essay upon "The higher education of women." Think of it! Schools were few and far between, the reading of fiction was barred to a degree by religious scruples, and woman was out of place except at the hearthstone or in the drawing-room. No doubt many still thought with Cowley, that "she was one of Nature's agreeable blunders," or with Thucydides, that "the best woman is she of whom the least can be said either in the way of good or harm;" or yet with Mohammed, that "the worst thing about a woman is that we can't do without her." Why, I remember fully fifty years after the La Fayette commencement, a society young man's shocked veto upon his sister reading her graduating essay from the stage to be gazed at by men and women. This mother of famous sons and daughters made the plea that woman was capable of receiving instruction, of comprehending the science of numbers, of learning languages, of following the explorations of science, and of mental discipline through logic and philosophy, and begged that proud men will permit women to spend some hours in improving their minds. She says: "History is no longer confined to the exploits and achievements of men, but is proud to have its brightest pages adorned with the names of women distinguished for learning, for patriotism, for high and heroic virtue."

Alas! I fear that proud men went away exulting over the pretty reader, and ignoring what she read as a vagary to be pardoned. It cost the blood of battles, the social disruption, the severance of family ties and the martyrdom of broken hearts, to plume the upward flight of Kentucky women, to grant them what has been termed "their perilous freedom from social trammels." But now in 1893 I clip the following from a local paper:


"Professor Barbour, of the University of Richmond, Ky., has sent the work of two prodigies in mathematics. In offering the papers for display, he explains that the authors are very poor at football, and have not distinguished themselves either in marksmanship or as oarsmen. Then he explains that they are young ladies, to whose work in higher mathematics he calls the attention of the educators and experts of the world. The young ladies are Miss Estelle W. Walker and Miss Florence P. Witherspoon."

Miss Chenault, of Louisville, who is soon to be married, declined the chair of mathematics in a Western college recently offered her. Similar triumphs are getting to be neither few nor far between.

The descendants of Susan Taylor are identified with Newport, Ky. Here resides Mrs. Thomas L. Jones, one of the most cultivated, elegant women of the South. In gracious hospitality she has not been excelled, and as a prominent member of the Kentucky Historical Society she is conversant with the choicest bits of patriotic lore.

Mrs. Mary Gratz Morton, president of the Kentucky Columbian Club, is descended from one of the most charitable and influential women of her day. Mrs. Morton is cultured and refined, has found pleasure in literary clubs where a few years ago they were an unknown quantity. Miss Mary Harrison, of Lexington, a member of the prominent families of Clay and Harrison, has devoted her energies for years to the establishment of charitable institutions. Not possessed of the necessary means to carry out her plans, she brought to bear her strong personal influence and untiring perseverance, till more than one lofty pile has arisen to shelter the sick and the poor.

Mrs. Sarah Bruin Cronly, left a widow in her prime, has consecrated her life to good works. Systematic, clear-headed charity distinguished her methods, and so active is she in her daily rounds among the poor, supplying the needs of the parish, that she has long been known by the pseudonym of "Aunt Busy." Mrs. Eliza Brand Woodward, wealthy and charitable, built and endowed the Church Home for needy women at Lexington, and gives liberally to every good cause. Who does not know of Jennie Casseday, the saint on her couch of pain during thirty years? She instituted the Flower Mission for prisons and hospitals, and wrote her sweet songs of peace and hope in the night hours of patient watching. Her leaflets are read from pole to pole, [Page 565]  and at Louisville the Jennie Casseday Infirmary stands a monument to her labors. "They also serve who only stand and wait." She worked while she waited.

Mrs. John M. Clay, daughter-in-law of Henry Clay, was left a widow two years ago with the broad acres of Ashland on her hands, and the green pastures of blooded horses as a heritage. Diligently the turf-men put their heads together and picked at the sires and dams and foals they meant to buy at the coming sale. But Mrs. Clay held her farm intact and manages it herself. She is besides a writer of ability, not only of novels, but gets out the annual pedigree catalogue of stock with the accuracy of a man and the dainty binding of a woman's artistic taste.

Mrs. Cornelia Bush was our first woman State Librarian, and a woman has held the office ever since. Miss Belle Bennett represents her family in this generation by her work for church and school extension. She has traveled hundreds of miles and has collected many thousands of dollars. The Scarrett memorial at Kansas City, and the march of religion and education in the mountains of Kentucky, bear testimony to her labors and those of her deceased sister. Miss Laura White, of Ashland, Ky., and Miss Joe Carter, of the Kentucky parlor in your Woman's Building, have taken studies in architecture. Miss Enid Yandell is a sculptor, and our school of wood-carving is crowded with proficients. Mrs. Mary Cecil Cantrill, Kentucky's World's Fair commissioner, was born to the self-indulgence of wealth, yet she has long sought the active walk of intellectual pre-eminence. Miss Jean W. Faulkner, another commissioner, a beautiful, bright girl, is descended from a heroic ancestry. Her grandmother, Mrs. Jane Kavanaugh Walker, is now a hale, active woman of four-score years, all her life remarkable for advanced ideas and strong will. In the bringing up of her large family, in church, and throughout her region, she wields authority and influence. First the wife of Gen. John Faulkner, the sturdy blood of the two pioneers flows in Miss Faulkner's veins. She carries the reflection of the heroism which distinguished her grandfather on the battle-field, and which nerved him to sit calmly down and have an arm amputated without a groan before the day of anæsthetics. Her father was a gallant officer in the late war, and through her mother she inherits the fluent tongue of the Joshua Bell family. The aged grandmother, Mrs. Walker, claims also as her grandchild the Estelle Walker just referred to as the winner in Calculus; and her descendants comprise a veritable rosebud garden of girls who are working their way as teachers in the schools. Miss Ida Symmes and Mrs. Sue Phillips Brown, two more of our commissioners at the Columbian Fair, have worthily shown their claim to confidence and enterprise. Miss Mattie Lee Todd, while yet a young and handsome girl, was appointed to the position of postmaster in her native town, and shouldering the burden of a family debt, as well as the arduous duties of her office, has discharged all obligations and stands today triumphant at her post. Mary Anderson raised the drama to a plane of personal purity hitherto denied by critics to women actors. Her mighty genius attuned the gamut of fiery human emotions, yet "Our Mary" came forth unscathed. Mrs. Milton Barlow has invented some clever cooking utensils, and her daughter, Miss Florence Barlow, is not only a self-supporting artist, but is the first Kentucky woman to venture into the real estate business. I have found it convenient thus far to pursue the line of woman's development by connecting the past with the present by tracing ancestral characteristics through the generations of improved conditions on to pursuits both within the gates and without the gates of woman. But there is an era to which I must go back. I would I might faithfully portray life in Kentucky during the long interval between that brave girl's petition for enlightenment and the possibilities of the present. We did not call our farms plantations. Broad acres stretched on every side and negroes tilled the soil. Mansions of brick and stone loomed up, guarded and tended by well trained serving men and women of the antebellum time. Children clung to their black mammies with a love that has no exact parallel in history; and here let me say that many a white nursling owes health, happiness and fine disposition to the good influence of black mammy. The work of the colored woman was not alone the drudgery of the house. [Page 566]  She filled a higher, holier niche in countless instances, and her fidelity was almost sublime. In her arms the little ones cried "Sanctuary," and in truth the tyrants of the home were likely to be Aunt Dinah and Old Black Joe.

Larger children played with sable mates. Hospitality reigned with princely hand. Social life held supremacy, and the mistress had all she could do to provide for her guests and for the well-being of her dependents. The dying arts of spinning and weaving were turned over to Aunt Sallie, who still rolled out yards of homespun for the "hands;" but once her wooly head was laid low and these implements of early thrift were packed away, alongside of "Uncle Ned's fiddle and de bow." The mistress trained and taught and managed, till she had time for little else. True, she did no menial service. Did she venture with industrious intent into the kitchen, how promptly Old Aunt Kitty would shake her beturbaned head and cry, "Now you jist go right along in de house, Mistress; I ain't guine to hab yer spilen yer pretty white han's." How is it now? The cooking school is sending forth adepts in the art, and the pretty white hands are of secondary consideration.

The aged negroes who have clung with child-like trust to the "white folks" are cared for while they live, and buried when they die. Not from the cabin door, but from the wide marble portals of the family mansion. Only last year an old servant was thus buried from Dr. H. M. Skillinan's home at Lexington, and the remains lay in state in their handsome parlors. This case is the rule, not the exception, and no will is ever probated but a legacy is found therein to the old family servants.

Now let us look at the poor relations of the period; the old maid cousins and aunts; for girls were old maids at twenty if still unmarried. Not one would dare express her wish to get out and earn a living. It was a violation of social caste. She might thus bring reproach upon rich Aunt Margaret. She was welcome to abide with rich Aunt Margaret and take the snubbing that chanced to her lot. She might bring up every one of the children till decrepit with age, and get an unsystematic sort of providing for in pay. She knew absolutely nothing of business. Why should she if she was gifted with a voice, she did not dare hear, but in a church choir. Oh, no; she might sing if she did not sing too loud, for this though a bit conspicuous was a holy thing to do. She could not take money for it; on no account must she earn money. For a long while no exception was made in favor of school teaching. She might trim bonnets if she kept her shop at home; or if married and abjectly poor, taking a few genteel boarders might be forgiven, especially if that little evasive fib could pass current, that she was doing it just for company. But there was a perceptible drop in the social scale. Young women if caught washing dishes were talked about. The very next sewing society sat on the case, for mind you, the women must not know anything to talk about, and yet they were held fully responsible. Was it any wonder that tea-table and sewing-society gossip passed into a proverb. There was actually nothing for a girl to do but get married. This was the aim, if not the end, of her career. Old Miss Smith, I shall call her, was slave in her father's house all her life. She attended to the spinning, the weaving, butter making, sheep shearing, hog-killing, fruit gathering, pickling, preserving, and all the rest from early morn to late bedtime. He was a rich man. When he died he willed all his property to his well-to-do sons, and left this daughter a black woman and an old mare. The old maid mildly lifted up her voice in protest when the will was read. She ventured to say it was not fair; at least she did not think it was fair. "Why, what on earth do you want do you want with money?" they said. "You are not married, you have no family, you know you are to take turns about living with us." And whenever they saw her riding up on her old mare, her face soured and disappointed and out of humor, there didn't anybody enjoy her visit. Now a father dies and not only leaves money to his daughters, but often ties it up so that their husbands can not touch it. Then mothers shielded their daughters from menial work, and would not even acknowledge that they were helping. They must not be old maids; and the dread of having to spend their lives in weary, thankless pilgrimages from Brother Joe's to Sister Mary's forces many a high- [Page 567]  spirited girl to marry John Smith and risk this questionable extension of her liberty. Anything to avoid being thrown on the kin. Poor girls, they would gladly have earned their living, but then it wasn't genteel. Sometimes a little school was made up in the family. By and by the more ambitious were sent off to Philadelphia or Baltimore boarding schools to be finished in style; so to keep the patronage at home seminaries were chartered and institutions built; but the teachers had to come from the North. The Yankee school, more in jest than derision, was a necessity till, as her admirable work went on, no other teacher could win the respect due her higher culture. By an unreasoning perversion of sentiment the Kentucky girl, who was thought ever so much better than her teacher, was not considered able enough to take charge of a school. Then, too, you heard the silly mothers who had been made dunces from necessity, remark, in the sweet bliss of ignorance; "I took Mary Eliza away before commencement–so much is expected of a graduate, you know." How is it now? The normal schools are flooding the country with capable young women. The once dangerous forests of the dark and bloody ground now gleam with steeple and spire, and not one of Kentucky's one hundred and nineteen counties is without its common school fund, and women are being admitted to the school boards. Colleges, universities, institutes, seminaries, academies, kindergartens, whatever the name, have followed the wake of railroads, and the children are sure of intelligent training from the state's own cultured daughters. The loss of property in slaves, and in devastated homes, brought a change that was destined to work only good. Necessity gradually came to elevate honest endeavor and open the way for woman's buried talent. Pardon me if I devote a paragraph to Mrs. Nancy Jennings Dunlap, who was very dear to me. She eminently deserves a place in the annals of Kentucky women. She came of gold old English stock, with every faculty on the alert for whatever was new and progressive, for all that led onward and upward. Married at fourteen, her education was meager; however, it included music and painting, and she had ambition and energy and took up her burden of life with heroic determination. Forty years after she could look back upon a record of doing such as few can recall. She was the mother of eleven children, had sewed for her family white and black, educated herself with her sons and daughters, read everything that was published in that day of comparatively restricted literature, was conversant with politics and every public movement, entertained guests literally from one year's end to another, had helped scores of people, old and young, to better their conditions, had accompanied her husband to the state legislature and to Congress, was a staunch church woman, faithful at Sunday-school during many years, founder of the Good Templar Order in her native place, and a devotee to higher education. She was always well dressed and ready to converse in her vivacious way upon any topic. She was one of the most graceful, popular leaders in the state. She found time in her busy life to travel much and learn from observation as from the books she so loved, and when at the early age of fifty-three she closed her eyes upon the arena of so much industry and philanthropy, she had fulfilled nearly to the letter the Bible portraiture of action for home and state.

The day has come when we look about us and say, "It is good." The shackles of repression that were forged, not by intentional injustice, but by the shortsighted spirit of the times, are not all loosed; nor do we look just yet for a millennium of freedom from social prejudice. But the daughters of the house are filling places as artists, musicians, poets, novelists, teachers, stenographers, typewriters, postmasters, matrons, housekeepers and all the list of undisputed territory. They are slipping the leash day by day. The labors of Mrs. Josephine K. Henry, Mrs. Mary B. Clay, Miss Laura Clay and others, to secure equal property rights for Kentucky women, have paved the way to much that was before impracticable. Their places shall ever be honored in the archives of the state. Men are beginning to discriminate between usefulness and unwomanliness. The press is falling into line, and we read that Miss Margaret Guthrie, who died recently at the age of ninety-four years, was the first to introduce the cultivation of strawberries in Jefferson County, and that she made $1,000 on her [Page 568]  three-acre patch. We read of a vote of thanks to Mrs. Allie Hervy Ballard, who brought the refining influence of music into the Lexington public schools, where it has flourished for three years. Miss Elizabeth Harrison, of Kentucky, started your Chicago Kindergarten Training School, now a college, in 1885. In our literary exhibit on these grounds is a pamphlet upon the life of Mrs. Julia A. Tevis, the pioneer teacher at Science Hill, Shelbyville, which school she carried on for more than sixty years; the gifted woman who, just three years after Susan Taylor's ambitious essay in 1822, opened her school with a chemical laboratory in the building, and applied to its mysteries the female intellect. This literary exhibit contains also volumes in prose and poetry from Rosa Vertner Jeffrey, a brilliant writer, a woman of great beauty and a social leader, whose pen has wielded infinite power. Other writers on the list are Sarah Bryan Piatt, Catherine A. Warfield, Amelia B. Welby, Eliza R. Parker, Alice Hawthorne Mudd, Nellie Marshall McAfee, Annie Chambers Ketchum, Ida Goldsmith Morris, Elvira Sydnor Miller, Nellie Talbot Kinkead, Florence Griffith Miller, Sophie Fox Sea, Ida Withers Harrison and a hundred more who, from the sheltered sanctum, have moved the souls and molded the sentiment of mankind.

Did time permit, I might tell you of our marvelous needle-women our societies of church and charity workers, our "King's Daughters;" our missionaries, led by that human saint, Sybil Carter; our farmers, with Miss Hannah Burgin in the van; our elocutionists, all honor to Mrs. Bessie Miller Oton; our kindergartens, with the pioneer Mrs. S. S. Higgins and Miss Sallie Adams in the field; our physicians, our journalists and lecturers. I should tell you how the crowd of curious auditors flocked to hear Mrs. Lula Adams Nield, the first W. C. T. U. speaker in the region; how her modest and quiet voice left no room for frivolous comment. How the white ribbons fluttered everywhere to the rally of Mrs. Frances E. Beauchamp. Your president, Mrs. Potter Palmer, whose energy and tact, whose wisdom and philanthropy, made the Woman's Building possible, is a Kentucky woman; your chairman, Mrs. James P. Eagle, who has resided here with such winning grace and marked intelligence, is a Kentucky woman. These need no comment; I could not add to their fame. But a volume would scarce hold them all. We have no wish to be manlike. We care not to lose our right of pleasing. We do not ask liberty of our individuality. Fathers and brothers are helping us, and husbands do not all hold back. Society looks kindly on, and the rich girl and the poor girl walk side by side where only dollars and cents constitute the distinction between. And when voice and pen and brain and hand shall have filled our boundaries with enlightened views, with the education of the masses, with happiness at the fireside and with universal respect, then only shall it be said of Kentucky women, "They have done what they could." Then only may we fold our draperies about us in a painless sleep and smilingly say–

"My old Kentucky home, good-night."

[Page 562] 

Mrs. Eugenia Dunlap Potts was born at Lancaster, Ky. Her father was the Hon. George W. Dunlap, a distinguished lawyer and statesman. Her mother was Nancy E. Jennings, a woman of brilliant talents. Mrs. Potts graduated from Franklin Female Institute, then took a special course at Philadelphia in music and French. She married Surgeon-Major Richard Potts, U.S.A. and C.S.A. of Maryland. Mrs. Potts was left a widow, with her infant son, quite young. Her literary career always promising, now began in earnest. Her "Song of Lancaster", a metrical history after the style of Hiawatha, Longfellow read and approved in an autograph letter of which the young author was very proud. She has several later works ready for the press. Her favorite enterprise is the "Illustrated Kentuckian," which she owns and edits in a masterly manner. She is a member of the Episcopal Church. Her postoffice address is Lexington, Ky.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom