Biographical Sketch of Virginia Robb (Mrs. Robinson A.) McDowell

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Virginia Robb (Mrs. Robinson A.) McDowell, 1874-1958

By Ann Taylor Allen, Professor Emerita, University of Louisville


Virginia Robb was born in Jefferson County, Kentucky, in 1874. Both her parents—Henry D. Robb, a farmer, and his wife Joetta Brooks Robb—were native Kentuckians. She had one sister, Edith Pearl Robb (later Crutcher). We know nothing of her early education. In 1896, she married Joseph W. Morey, who was the chief cashier of Louisville's W.B. Belknap Company. When they were married in Louisville, the wedding announcement described him as “well known in social and athletic circles,” and her as a “handsome and well-known young lady.” In 1896, Virginia Morey was at the beginning of a career as an artist who used pyrography--that is, the art of burning designs with a poker or other heated object—to engrave wood and leather objects. She studied this art in Chicago, and practiced it professionally in Louisville. By 1901 she was using a new instrument with a platinum tip—“as easy to manipulate as a lead pencil” remarked an admiring article in the Louisville Courier-Journal—which she heated through a rubber hose connected to a bottle of naphtha (a flammable oil). She secured some large orders from “the best citizens” for her creations, which included an oak screen, an oak chest, leather sofa cushions and frames for photographs. She received support from the Woman's Club of Louisville, where she exhibited her works.

Although we cannot know what motivated Virginia Morey to work for women's rights, the early and catastrophic end of her marriage may have made her aware of the precarious situation in which marriage placed even women as fortunate as herself. In 1900 Joseph Morey committed suicide shortly after auditors asked him to explain an entry in the books he kept for the Belknap Company. It turned out that he had stolen about $7000—a large sum of money in those days—and spent it at the race track. He had also cashed a fraudulent check at the American National Bank. Two years later, Virginia Morey tried to draw a check on her own account and discovered that the bank, in order to recover its losses, had confiscated her funds along with her husband's. Virginia sued American National Bank, demanding damages both for the humiliation inflicted on her and for the injury to her credit caused by the bank's refusal to honor her check. Having lost her case in the Jefferson County Common Pleas Court, Virginia took it to the Court of Appeals and won $500 in damages. She thus asserted her right to control the property that she had acquired during her marriage—a right that married women in Kentucky had held only since 1894.

In 1906, the young woman whom the Courier Journal had called “one of the Louisville and an artist of much talent and ability” married Robinson Adair McDowell, a Louisville attorney. Robinson McDowell was the son of William Preston McDowell, who had gained the rank of major in the Union Army and later engaged in various business ventures in Louisville. Virginia and Robinson McDowell had no children and lived for many years in the Puritan Apartments on Fourth Street in Louisville.

As Henry Clay McDowell, the father of the Kentucky suffrage leader Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, was William Preston McDowell's brother, Robinson was Madeline's first cousin. Perhaps because of this family connection, Virginia McDowell gained a prominent position both in the Woman Suffrage Association of Louisville (LWSA) and in the state suffrage organization, the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA), in which Madeline Breckinridge served several terms as president. McDowell began her suffrage work as the movement was gaining in numbers and momentum, and she developed new ways of spreading the message. As State Chairman for Fair Work, she reported in 1913 that the booth that LWSA had set up at the Kentucky State Fair had gained it 1,000 new members. In the same year Robinson McDowell, also a suffragist, was among the speakers at an open-air meeting that explored “woman suffrage from the point of view of several men.” In 1915, Virginia McDowell helped to set up a booth for LWSA at a local convention, the Electrical Prosperity Exposition. In October of that year, she announced that the group's membership had increased to 4,000.

In 1914 and 1915, Virginia McDowell served as the Recording Secretary of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, and in 1916 she was elected to the office of First Vice President and also served as Chair of the Publicity Committee. In that year, KERA sent her as one of Kentucky's delegates to the annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which met in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1917, she served as KERA's treasurer and continued her service on the Publicity Committee.

During these years, the new strategies developed by Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of NAWSA, caused tensions within the Kentucky movement and KERA. Up until this time, KERA had pursued woman suffrage by means of an amendment to the state constitution. Two such state campaigns, in 1914 and 1916, had been unsuccessful. By then, however, the passage of an amendment (then known as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment”) to the federal constitution had emerged as a more efficient path to woman suffrage because such an amendment would enfranchise all American women at once. In 1915, Catt announced her “winning plan,” which called on state organizations to support suffrage not only on the state but also on the national level by supporting the federal amendment. KERA's Louisville chapter, now the largest in the state, strongly favored the federal over the state-level strategy. Another group led by Laura Clay, however, joined suffragists from other Southern states in opposing the Anthony Amendment because it would authorize the federal government to enforce women's right to vote in all states, thus invalidating laws passed in Southern states that disenfranchised African American voters. Clay, still a powerful figure in the Kentucky movement, was determined that woman suffrage must be granted by state legislatures, not the federal government.

At KERA's 1917 annual meeting, the conflict between these two groups came into the open. A Majority Report called for a renewed campaign for a state amendment. As Secretary pro-tem, Virginia McDowell reported a very divided vote: 36 in favor, 9 against, and 21 abstaining. A Minority Report, presented by the Louisvillian Julia Duke Henning, recommended against a renewed state-level campaign. By 1918, when the state campaign would have been launched, the NAWSA president Catt asked the Kentuckians to call it off in order not to drain money and effort from what had become the most important objective—the passage of the federal amendment (now called the Nineteenth Amendment). The KERA board, on which half of the members were now from Louisville, backed up the decision of the president, Christine South, to accede to Catt's request. Clay resigned from KERA in 1919, blaming the Louisville board members for her defeat, and later joined the ranks of the anti-suffragists. The Kentucky state legislature ratified the Nineteenth Amendment in January of 1920.

Virginia McDowell linked domestic and international issues. When the United States entered the First World War, she actively recruited her fellow suffragists to support the war effort. She sincerely hoped that an American victory would make the world more peaceful, just, and democratic. In a speech to the Woman's Club in 1919, she advocated an international tribunal to punish war crimes against women, adding that the victims “should not be regarded as shamed.” And in 1920, though a member of a family with a strong Republican tradition, she publicly announced her decision to vote for the Democratic candidate, James M. Cox, who wished to bring the United States into the League of Nations—an action that the Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, strongly opposed.

Virginia Robb McDowell became an active member of the Louisville branch of the League of Woman Voters, a non-partisan organization that educated women about political issues and worked for social reform. She died in 1952.


Joseph W. Morey
Virginia R. Morey
Robinson Adair McDowell
Virginia Robb McDowell
William Preston McDowell
Henry D. Robb
Joetta Brooks Robb

Louisville Courier-Journal: June 32, 1896; May 8, 1900; January 27, 1901; Feb. 1, 1902; September 27, 1902; June 21, 1903; October 7, 1906; May 2, 1913; November 1, 1913; October 16, 1914; November 5, 1914; December 1, 1915; March 11, 1916; March 26, 1916; October 6, 1918; May 26, 1917; September 18, 1918; January 16, 1919; September 24, 1920; March 20, 1921.

Kentucky Equal Rights Association. Report of the Twenty-Fifth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Owensboro, Kentucky, November 7, 7, 8, 1914. Brochure, Special Collections, Margaret I King Library, University of Kentucky.

Kentucky Equal Rights Association. Report of the Twenty-Sixth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Lexington, Kentucky, November 8,9,10, 1915. Brochure, Special Collections, Margaret I King Library, University of Kentucky.

Kentucky Equal Rights Association. Report of the Twenty-Seventh Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Louisville, Kentucky, November 15 and 16, 1916. Brochure, Special Collections, Margaret I King Library, University of Kentucky.

Kenucky Equal Rights Association. Report of the Twenty-Eight and Twenty-Ninth Annual Conventions of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association. Lexington, Kentucky. November 30 and December 1, 1917 and Louisville, March 11 and 12, 1919. Brochure, Special Collections, Margaret I King Library, University of Kentucky.

National American Woman Suffrage Association. The Handbook and Proceedings of the Forty-Eighth Annual Convention, Held at Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 4-10, 1916. New York: NAWSA, 1916.

Fuller, Paul E. Laura Clay and the Woman's Rights Movement. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975.

Guethlein, Carol (Mattingly).“Women in Louisville: Moving Toward Equal Rights.” The Filson Club HistoryQuarterly 5, no. 2 (April, 1981): 151-178.

Hay, Melba Porter, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

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