Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Lucy Adams (Mrs. Charles S.) Nield, 1862(?)-1930
By Ann Taylor Allen, Professor Emerita, University of Louisville
LOUISVILLE SUFFRAGIST AND SOCIAL REFORMER
Lucy Adams was born around 1862 (several different birth years are reported) in Mount Vernon, Rockcastle County, Kentucky. She was the eldest of eight children of Elisha Adams, a substantial farmer, and his wife Margaret Smith Adams, who kept house. We have no records of her education. Around 1880 she married Charles Smedley Nield, who was born in Mount Vernon to William Henry Nield, a Virginia native, and his wife Martha. The couple had one daughter, Cecil Willis Nield (later Bayless), who was born in 1883. Their first home was in Kirksville, Madison County, Kentucky, where Charles Nield worked as a dry goods merchant. By 1902, however, Charles Nield had become the general manager of a new mine owned by North Jellico Coal Company and located in Wilton, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, this “splendidly equipped” mine employed 500 men and produced 1500 tons of coal per day. Charles Nield also managed another mine belonging to the same company. The couple moved to Louisville sometime during the 1890s and lived first on Garvin Place and then at 1374 Third Street. This prosperous household included two live-in servants, a housemaid and a cook. The Nields also had a summer place in the mountains near Wilton.
Like many other women who joined the suffrage movement, Lucy Nield began as a volunteer in church-sponsored charitable work. In 1898, she was a member of the Women's Presbyterial Missionary Society, which met at Louisville's Central Presbyterian Church. The Society's purview extended not only to foreign, but also to “home” (that is, domestic) missions, and at the meeting of March 18, 1898 speakers expressed concern about the women of the Kentucky mountains, where Charles Nield worked and the family had its summer house. By 1908, Lucy Nield was among the most active members of the Woman's Club of Louisville, where as head of the Civics Department she arranged programs on a wide range of social issues. For example, the meeting of February 3, 1908, entitled “The Louisville Meat and Milk Situation,” addressed the dangers that impure food posed to the city's population. The speakers were R.M. Allen, head of the State Division of Food Control, and Lilla Breed, an officer of the local branch of the National Consumers' League, who spoke on “Pure Food and the Housekeeper.” Local groups such as the Woman's Club had worked for years to persuade the federal government to pass laws requiring the inspection and accurate labeling of food and medications sold through interstate commerce. The federal Pure Food and Drug Act, passed in 1906, was only the first of many measures at the city, state, and federal levels that set standards for food and medications sold to the public.
In 1909, when the Kentucky state suffrage organization, the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) held its annual convention in Louisville, Nield emerged as an outspoken suffragist. The host organization was the Woman Suffrage Association of Louisville (LWSA), which had recently changed its name from the Louisville Equal Rights Association—a change that gave priority to suffrage over the many other reforms in which such civic activists as Nield were engaged. On a national level, the year 1909 had seen the founding of a new organization called the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women which recruited working women to the suffrage cause.
At the KERA convention, Nield supported this agenda in several ways. She hosted Anna Howard Shaw, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), at the family home on Third Street. Shaw seized the opportunity provided by Kentucky's only industrial city to expand her base by touring local textile factories and speaking to their mostly female labor force about “labor conditions and the desirability of the ballot for women,” promising that woman suffrage would “affect wages for women as well as for men.”
Nield herself also reinforced Shaw's message. In a speech that extended the greetings of LWSA to the assembled delegates, she emphasized the “professional woman factor” in their movement. Claiming that organization was “the one and only thing to get results,” she specifically urged her fellow suffragists to follow the example set by labor unions: “this work of the laboring men, she said, was analogous to the manner in which the women should organize.” This was a surprising statement from the wife of a manager of coal mines. In what the Courier-Journal called “one of the most interesting talks which has been heard at the convention,” Nield introduced her fellow delegates, most of whom came from small cities and rural areas, to urban social problems by telling them how Louisville civic groups had addressed an important urban problem—child labor in factories—by working to draft and pass the state's first child labor law in 1908. She advocated improved wages for women workers in industry, declaring that “no woman or girl can live and dress herself on $3 or $3.50 a week.” Delegates later elected Nield to a newly-formed committee on “the industrial problems of women and children” and she joined the KERA board of directors in the position of auditor—an office that she held until 1913.
Nield's prominence in Kentucky's suffrage movement increased when LWSA appointed her as a delegate to the 1911 NAWSA convention, which was held in Louisville. At the Seelbach Hotel, where the meetings were held, the news that women had won the right to vote in two new states, Washington and California, created a hopeful atmosphere. In the keynote speech Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the radical faction of the British suffrage movement, exhorted her Kentucky colleagues to forsake caution and adopt militant tactics. At that meeting, the delegates from KERA announced that the Kentucky State Federation of Labor had joined its umbrella organization, the American Federation of Labor, in supporting woman suffrage. In Kentucky, an Equal Rights Lecture Bureau composed of “women who would make public addresses on Woman Suffrage and allied subjects” included Nield as one of two Louisville members. Nield also served as a delegate from Louisville to the NAWSA convention in Washington in 1913.
Nield pursued the mission that her colleagues had assigned her by speaking frequently to local groups on topics that ranged from social reform to foreign policy. She also continued active in KERA, the Woman's Club of Louisville, and the Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs. In the second year of the First World War, she envisaged a role for the United States in a talk on “preparedness.” In the immediate aftermath of the war in 1919, however, she seemed to turn her back on some of her earlier progressive convictions. Throughout the United States, the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia had unleashed a “red scare,” and many feared that social reform was a road to revolution. Nield contributed to this reactionary mood in a talk to the Woman's Club in which she denounced the “little Americans who give financial report to radical propaganda,” condemned socialism as “nothing more than camouflaged Bolshevism,” and advocated the publication of the names of “persons who displayed un-American-ism.” Lucy Adams Nield died in 1930.
The career of this Kentucky activist exemplifies more general aspects of the history of the woman suffrage movement in Louisville, Kentucky, and the nation as a whole. Like many suffragists, she began as a civic-minded clubwoman, and moved from a church group to the Woman's Club of Louisville. Urban women's clubs played an important role in the suffrage movement by encouraging middle class women such as Nield to channel their energies into social reform—an experience through which many learned to value the right to vote as the indispensable means to influence and success. Historians often criticize activists such as Nield, a wealthy and leisured woman, for their snobbish disdain for working-class women. Along with her Louisville co-workers, however, Nield emphasized the problems of working women and encouraged them to organize, not only for the right to vote but for improved wages and working conditions. During the years from 1908 until about 1920, when Nield was most active, progressive reform was popular among a wide segment of the public, including many women of Nield's social status. By 1919, however, she had succumbed to the post-war “red scare,” which turned public opinion against social reform and ushered in a more conservative era.
Lucy A. Adams
Margaret Smith Adams
Cecil Nield Bayless
Charles Smedley Nield
Lucy A. Nield
Louisville Courier-Journal: Mar 18, 1898; Jan 19, 1902; February 3, 1908; Nov 12,1909; Nov 13,1909; Oct 4, 1911; Oct, 22, 1911; Nov 30, 1913; March 19, 1916; December 18, 1919.
Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Report of the Nineteenth Annual Convention, November 18-19, 1908, 18. Brochure, Special Collections, Margaret I King Library, University of Kentucky.
National-American Woman Suffrage Association, Forty-Third Annual Report of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association, Given at the Convention held at Louisville, Kentucky, October 19 to 25. New York: NAWSA Headquarters, 1911.
Cott, Nancy F. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
DuBois, Ellen Carol. Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Franzen, Trisha. Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
Guethlein, Carol (Mattingly). “Women in Louisville: Moving Toward Equal Rights.” The Filson Club HistoryQuarterly 5, no. 2 (April, 1981): 151-178.
Knott, Claudia. “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Kentucky, 1879-1920,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1989.