Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Catherine Talty Kenny, 1874-1950
By Carole Stanford Bucy, Ph.D., Professor of History, Volunteer State Community College, Gallatin, Tennessee
Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc; Nashville Equal Suffrage League; race relations; Tennessee League of Women Voters
Catherine Talty Kenny's background and youth were quite different from those of other Tennessee suffragists. Born in 1874 in Chattanooga to Irish Catholic parents, she grew up in a religiously segregated, impoverished section of the city known as Irish Hill. When her father died in an 1878 yellow fever epidemic, Kenny's mother supported her six children, all under the age of ten, by working as a seamstress. The family moved from one tenement apartment to another within that neighborhood. When Catherine Talty was fifteen, in 1889, the local priests arranged for her to attend Nazareth Academy, a Catholic high school attached to Nazareth College in Bardstown, Kentucky. Unfortunately, she was only able to attend this school for one year because she had to return home to help her mother support the family. For the next ten years, she held several jobs including store clerk, stenographer, and cashier before marrying John M. Kenny. When her husband took a job as a salesman for a wholesale coffee company, the couple moved to Nashville. Like many other young men with ambition and Chattanooga connections, John Kenny was given the opportunity to obtain a charter for a local Coca Cola franchise and open a bottling company in Nashville.
As the Coca Cola Bottling Works flourished and expanded, the family moved out of the Catholic neighborhood near the plant into a large house in the fashionable West End section of the city. Her early years in Nashville were spent giving birth to and caring for her four children. On many occasions in later years, she repeatedly said that her interest in political causes grew out of her responsibilities as a mother. At a time when many American Catholics opposed woman suffrage, Catherine Kenny, the only Catholic among the leadership of the Tennessee suffragists, was able to reconcile her religious beliefs with her political beliefs in women's rights.
The Nashville Equal Suffrage League was organized in 1911, and by 1913 Catherine Kenny was active in the organization. Here she was able to develop her leadership skills. This work brought her into contact with elite Protestant women who were increasingly politically active in the suffrage movement. She quickly became the spokeswoman for the local and state suffrage organization. She joined forces with Luke Lea's progressive Democratic coalition that supported the successful campaign of Republican Ben Hooper when he ran for governor in 1914. Lea owned the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, and Kenny began to organize events in Nashville that would gain positive publicity for the suffrage cause. She organized a suffrage parade, the first in the South, on May 2, 1914 that proved to be a great success. Running from the state capitol building to Centennial Park, it included marchers, decorated automobiles, an elaborate tableau, and a rally staged at the Parthenon in Centennial Park.
Later that year, two weeks before the NAWSA convention in Nashville met at the Ryman Auditorium, Kenny was elected Vice President of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc. (TESA, INC.) (The state suffrage organization had split earlier in the year over where the national convention should be held. The Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association supported having the convention in Memphis, while the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc. supported holding it in Nashville.) When the national convention took place, both groups were seated. She then joined Chattanooga suffragist Abby Crawford Milton in organizing a statewide campaign to organize suffrage clubs in Tennessee's rural counties.
After the NAWSA convention, in early 1915, TESA, Inc. developed a plan to persuade the General Assembly to amend the state constitution to give Tennessee women the right to vote. This gave Kenny experience for the first time in actual lobbying at the capitol. When the bill to amend the state constitution passed both houses of the legislature in 1915, it then had to be re-introduced in the next session of the legislature in 1917 before it could be sent to the voters for ratification. When state TESA, Inc. President Lizzie Crozier French from Knoxville resigned her position, Catherine Kenny, the vice-president-at-large assumed the duties as president until the election of Anne Dallas Dudley at a state convention held later in 1915.
Among Catherine Kenny's many initiatives to promote suffrage, she organized a camp in rural Cheatham County where she hosted leaders from across Tennessee to work on developing strategies for ratification of the state suffrage amendment. With a great deal of hard work and boundless optimism, the women were stunned when the Tennessee Senate tabled the proposed amendment at the 1917 session. The defeat, however, energized and mobilized Kenny and Milton's campaign committee. As the Nashville Suffrage League's publicity chairman, she persuaded the publishers of several newspapers to publish special suffrage editions. Kenny, Sue Shelton White, and Caroline Kimbrough also added a new innovation to the campaign: "street speaking". At busy street corners these women spoke to whoever might be listening and attracted considerable attention and publicity for their cause.
In 1919, the Tennessee House and Senate passed a bill to allow women in Tennessee to vote for presidential electors and in municipal elections, an action that could be done by passage of a bill rather than an amendment to the state constitution. As soon as Governor Albert Roberts signed the bill, Kenny became the first woman in Davidson County to pay the poll tax. That same year, Kenny forged a unique political relationship with Frankie J. Pierce and Mattie Coleman, two African-American activists who wanted the state to establish a vocational school for African-American girls. In return for Kenny's support of their project, Pierce and Coleman supported Kenny's reform candidates in the local election.
At the 1920 state convention of the League of Women Voters, the successor to the suffrage associations, Kenny invited Frankie Pierce to speak to the white suffragists about what African-American women would do with the vote. Asking only for a "square deal," Pierce told the suffragists that black women would use the vote to uplift the race. It was at this convention that the newly formed League of Women Voters decided to ask Governor Roberts to call the special session for the ratification of the 19th amendment. When Dudley and Milton left Nashville to attend the national League of Women Voters convention, they gave Kenny the responsibility of persuading Governor Roberts to call the special session. She was successful and Roberts sent a telegram to the national convention stating that he would call the special session for the second week of August, right after the Democratic primary. When the special session began on August 9, Catherine Kenny headed the League of Women Voters' ratification committee. With Carrie Chapman Catt at the Hermitage Hotel, and Alice Paul's Woman's Party at the Tulane Hotel, the two groups worked together for ratification by Tennessee. On August 24, 1920, Governor Roberts signed the ratification resolution, after a week of parliamentary maneuvering in the Tennessee General Assembly, and Carrie Chapman Catt accompanied by Charl Ormond Williams took it to Washington where Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation to make the 19th amendment part of the Constitution. Tennessee had become "the perfect 36."
Kenny remained active in Nashville politics in spite of the defeat of Governor Roberts in the November 1920 election. Nashville mayor Felix Z. Wilson named her to the City Hospital Commission as a reward for Kenny's support of Wilson's reform ticket. The year after ratification, Kenny became the state League of Women Voters president. Ultimately, however, Kenny and the other Tennessee suffragists were unable to maintain the momentum that had won ratification of the 19th amendment. When a legislative council headed by the WCTU attempted to take the place of the League of Women Voters, Kenny resigned as state president because she found the methods of the WCTU unacceptable. Although she had been an excellent grassroots organizer and lobbyist, her experiences demonstrate the difficulties that women encountered when attempting to articulate a women's agenda.
Catherine Kenny also suffered a personal setback when bankers foreclosed on her husband's Coca Cola Bottling Works. He had borrowed money to expand the business in 1916 before the U.S. entered World War I, but sugar rationing that was implemented the next year prevented him from operating his expanded bottling works at full production. John Kenny left town and moved to Louisville, leaving his wife in Nashville to care for a seriously ill daughter. John Kenny died in Louisville in 1927, and Catherine Kenny then moved out of Tennessee and never returned. After traveling extensively with one of her sons who was in the U.S. Navy, she spent her final years in Brooklyn, New York and ultimately died there in 1950. Family members believe that she is buried in a Catholic cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, but that has not been verified.
Carole Stanford Bucy, "Catherine Kenny: Fighting for the Perfect Thirty-Six", in Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives, ed. Kriste Lindenmeyer, Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Books, 2000.
Anastatia Sims, "'Powers that Pray' and ‘Powers that Prey': Tennessee and the Fight for Woman Suffrage," Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 50, #4, (Winter, 1991) 203-25.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida H. Harper, et al, editors, History of Woman Suffrage, volume 6 (New York, 1922). Kenny wrote the section on the suffrage movement in Tennessee. [LINK]
A. Elizabeth Taylor, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee. New York: Octagon Books, 1978.
Photograph of Catherine Talty Kenny: This photograph along with Kenny's two suffrage scrapbooks were donated to the Tennessee Historical Society in 1995 by Kenny's granddaughter, Lenore Selby, and placed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Tennessee State Museum. After Carole Bucy became interested in Catherine Kenny, she located her granddaughter who lived in California. After the granddaughter spoke with Carole Bucy, she agreed to donate these materials to the Tennessee Historical Society.