Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary Barr Clay, 1839-1924

By Dr. Randolph Hollingsworth, Independent Scholar, Auckland, New Zealand

The eldest daughter of a large family, Mary Barr was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on October 13, 1839, to Mary Jane Warfield and Cassius M. Clay. On October 3, 1866, she married Lt. Col. John Francis “Frank” Herrick (U.S.A. Ohio 12th Cavalry Regiment – mustered out on 14 Nov 1865 in Nashville TN), of Cleveland, Ohio. They had three sons and then they divorced in 1872. Clay's youngest son, Green Clay later claimed that “incompatibility of temper” was listed as the cause of the separation in the court records. When the divorce was granted, she took back her surname of Clay and changed the last names of her two younger children to Clay also: Francis Warfield (1869-1919) and Green (1872-1948?). Her eldest son, Cassius Clay (1867-1935) retained the last name of Herrick and lived in Cleveland with his father.

In May 1879 during the National Woman Suffrage Association convention in St. Louis, Mary Barr Clay met Susan B. Anthony and became the Kentucky delegate for that organization, serving as a vice-president. She was already a vice president for the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Returning home she invited Susan B. Anthony to come to Kentucky to lecture on suffrage, and in 1879 Anthony's visit helped launch the Madison County Equal Suffrage Association (the state's first permanent women's rights association). The next year, she invited Lucy Stone of the AWSA to stay with her mother in Lexington, and Stone helped the Clay women to create the Fayette County Equal Rights Association.

In 1883, Clay moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan seeking educational opportunities for her sons. There, she organized a suffrage club in Ann Arbor. She led the convention in Flint to create the Michigan State Suffrage Association. She also edited a column in the Ann Arbor Register.

In March 1884, Clay accompanied Susan B. Anthony and a group of NWSA lobbyists to the present before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Her primary argument was that women had unalienable rights to liberty but the U. S. laws violated these rights, making women the civil and “political slaves” of men. In November 1884 Clay gave a speech at the AWSA convention in Chicago. Suggesting that her divorce had been due to more than irreconcilable differences, she emphasized that woman needed “the right to protect herself from the avarice, brutality or neglect of the one nearest to her.” Her leadership at this convention made her the butt of a joke for the editor of the Chicago Herald whose caustic words were reprinted in the Louisville Times and even the Hickman Courier, a small-town newspaper in a western Kentucky that should have corrected the article's mistaken claim that she was the niece rather than the daughter of Cassius Clay. “Her face is interesting rather than attractive,” the author noted. “The sharp out-lines of chin, nose and lips correspond with the sharp voice, which has a ring in it that sounds not quite pleasant...”

At the request of Susan B. Anthony, Clay submitted the Kentucky state report for the History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 3, 1876-1885. This was the first report of Kentucky suffrage activities in what was becoming a large multi-volume project. This chapter has served as a defining narrative for historians interested in white Kentucky women's role in the suffrage movement. She also wrote a biography of her father that was given to her children and later published in the Filson Club Historical Quarterly.

Mary Barr Clay was the first Kentuckian to hold the office of president in a national woman's organization: the American Woman Suffrage Association from 1883-1884. She was also the first Kentucky woman to speak publicly on women's rights – though this was not a role that many accepted readily.

Her public life ended in 1902 due to ill health and family obligations. She died on October 12, 1924, after a long illness and a bad fall. Funeral services were held at the home of her sister, Sarah Clay Bennett, in Richmond, and she was buried in the Lexington Cemetery.


Cahn, Naomi R. “Faithless Wives and Lazy Husbands: Gender Norms in Nineteenth Century Divorce Law.” U. Ill. L. Rev. 651 (2002),

“Correspondence of his daughter, Mary Barr Clay,” in Cassius Marcellus Clay Papers, 1810-1903 and 1844-1907. A\C619. Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

“The Clay Family” Filson Club Publications No. 14. Louisville, KY: John P. Morton and Co., 1899.

Clay, Mary Barr. [Speech before U.S. House Judiciary Committee, March 8, 1884] in "Congressional Hearings and Reports of 1884," History of Woman Suffrage, Vol IV. Susan B. Anthony & Ida Husted Harper, eds. (Susan B. Anthony, 1902), 44-45.

Clay, Mary B. Mrs. “Biography of Cassius M. Clay, Written by His Daughter,” The Filson Club History Quarterly [in 3 parts] 46 (April 1972): 123-146; Part II (July 1972): 254-287; Part III (October 1972): 340-364.

Cole, Jennie (August 30, 2011). "'Her'Story: Women in the Special Collections: Mary Barr Clay, the Louisville Equal Rights Association, and Women's Rights". John Filson Blog, Filson Historical Society.

“Colonel John F. Herrick,” Memorial Record of the County of Cuyahoga and City of Cleveland, Ohio. (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1894), 694-5.

Engle, Fred A., Jr. and Grise, Robert N. Madison's Heritage Rediscovered: Stories from a Historic Kentucky County (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012): 44.

Fuller, Paul E. Laura Clay and the Woman's Rights Movement (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992): 22-27.

Green Clay to Marguerite, December 1, 1952, copy in possession of the author, provided by Sallie Clay Lanham.

Laura Clay Papers, 1819-1959, 46M4. University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center, Lexington, Kentucky.

“Mrs. Mary B. Clay Dies,” Lexington Herald (October 13, 1924), p. 1.

The Hickman Courier (1884-12-05), page 3.#x200e

Knott, Claudia. “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Kentucky, 1879-1920,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1989): 15.

A Woman of the Century: Fourteen hundred-seventy biographical sketches accompanied by portraits of leading American women in all walks of life (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1893): 179–180.

The Woman's Journal, (Sept. 22, 1883), vol. 14, no. 38, page 1.$337i

The Woman's Journal, (October 20, 1883), Vol. 14, No. 42 #x200e$337i

back to top