Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Laura Rogers White, 1852-1929
By Kelli Lemaster, student, and Dr. Melanie Beals Goan, faculty, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky
Laura Rogers White was a well-known architect and suffragist from Manchester, Kentucky. She was born on December 11, 1852, the daughter of Daugherty White and Sarah Watts White. She came from an economically and politically powerful family from Clay County. The Whites had made their fortune through land holding and running a profitable saltworks. One of six children, White was exceptionally well-educated, especially for a woman in the late nineteenth century. She began her studies at Science Hill Academy and followed her brother to the University of Michigan, where she studied from 1871-1874. There, she received the first Bachelors of Science degree awarded to a woman. During her time at Michigan, she excelled in mathematics and participated in the social life of the campus. Classmates gave her the nickname "Alba Longa" to recognize her towering height (6'2"). After graduating with honors, White's education was interrupted by the death of her father in 1875. Acting as the dutiful daughter, she returned home to Manchester to assist with her younger siblings and to help manage family business affairs. In 1880, she returned to school, studying architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She then took her talents to Paris, France to pursue further training at the Sorbonne.
Like many educated women who felt the simultaneous pull of family and career, White felt a strong sense of duty to home. She took a position with the Office of the Supervisory Architect of the U. S. Treasury Department in Washington D. C., but only stayed two years. She moved back to eastern Kentucky in the early 1880s and she would live out the rest of her life close to family.
White took up architecture at a time when the field was still relatively new. By 1900, only 118 architects were practicing in the state of Kentucky, and of those only two were women. One suspects that she found little opportunity in her chosen field upon moving back to her native state. Instead, she directed her professional talents toward teaching school, working as a land surveyor, and running the family business. She is known to have designed only one building: the First Christian Church in Ashland, Kentucky, which was completed in 1890. Her sister and brother-in-law attended the church, and those connections and possibly her willingness to donate her services, positioned her to take charge of its design.
White came from a politically influential family. Her brother John Daughterty White served in the U. S. House of Representatives. A known suffragist, he worked to create a House Select Committee on Woman Suffrage in 1882. Laura's interest in the cause seems to have developed later. The first record of her involvement in suffrage work does not appear until the early twentieth century. Laura Clay visited Ashland in 1901, speaking at the church White had designed. That year, White is listed as an officer or the newly-formed local, but it was a small organization with just a handful of members. White is named at different points as Secretary and as Treasurer of the Ashland chapter, but she preferred to work behind the scenes, circulating petitions and distributing literature. She was one of five women to serve on the Kentucky Equal Rights Association's school suffrage committee in 1906. Laura Clay, seeing her as a valuable asset in KERA's quest to build support among Eastern Kentucky residents encouraged White to be more visible within KERA, but White demurred, claiming that she needed to build her confidence by taking leadership roles in her local Woman's Club first. She attended the 1911 NAWSA convention in Louisville, having moved to the city around that time, but her suffrage work remained largely behind-the-scenes.
By the 19-teens, White was becoming wrapped up in other causes. She joined with other Louisville women, some of them fellow suffragists, to establish a college woman's club, having been very active in the National Association of Collegiate Alumnae while living in Ashland. This organization sought to assist young women who wanted to pursue higher education by providing scholarships. It also fought for working women's rights, emphasizing "equal pay for equal work." White also became a member of the Outdoor Art League of Louisville. Peace work increasingly became her biggest focus as war seemed a growing possibility. She chaired the Peace and Arbitration Committee of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association and later was a Kentucky delegate at the first annual Women's Peace Party Convention in Washington D.C.
Laura White never married or had any children. She died at her sister's home in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1929. She is buried at the White family cemetery at Goose Rock in Clay County, Kentucky.
Estridge, Danna C. "Laura R. White: Teacher, Scholar, Architect." Laurel County History Museum and Genealogy Center (blog), February 11, 2016. http://laurelcokyhistorymuseum.org/2016/02/11/laura-r-white-teacher-scholar-architect/.
Randolph Hollingsworth, "John Daughterty White of Clay County and Louisville" H-Kentucky, https://networks.h-net.org/node/2289/discussions/171682/john-daugherty-white-clay-county-and-louisville-advocate-woman.
James Tobin, "The First Women," University of Michigan, https://heritage.umich.edu/stories/the-first-women/.
Marilyn A. Bever, "The Women of M. I. T., 1871-1941: Who They Were, What They Achieved." Undergraduate thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1976, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/4399160.pdf.
Richmond Climax, 22 May 1889, 3.
Leonard, John William, Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada: 1914-1915. New York: The American Commonwealth Company, 1914. 875. LINK
National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for First Christian Church of Ashland, https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/42364275-2bd3-435f-95e4-744b2a10e2e6?branding=NRHP.
Kentucky Equal Rights Association Annual Minutes.
Forty-Third Annual Report of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association. New York City: NAWSA Headquarters, 1911. 51-52.
"Woman's Peace Party Makes Appeal," Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, May 9, 1915, 7.
"Committee Mustering College Women of City," Courier-Journal, February 18, 1914, 10.
"Miss Laura White, 76, Dies in Owensboro," Courier-Journal, January 27, 1929, 4
Laura R. White Obituary, Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, January 27, 1929, 10.