Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Henrietta Earle “Ettie” Bronston Chenault, 1835-1918
By Melinda Senters, Ph.D., Independent Scholar, Woodford County, Kentucky
Henrietta Earle “Ettie” Bronston Chenault was born in 1835 in Richmond, Madison County, Kentucky to Thomas Springer Bronston, Sr. and Lucy Ann Wilson Clark. On July 22, 1856, she married Dr. Robert Cameron Chenault, medical doctor and superintendent of the Kentucky Lunatic Asylum, later Eastern State Hospital, in Lexington. Together, they had six children, four of whom survived to adulthood—Dr. Emily Runyon, Mary Etta Bowmar, Pearl Evans Thum Drew, and Robert Chenault.
In January 1888, Chenault helped Laura Clay, nationally prominent suffragist and women's rights advocate, to form the Fayette County Equal Rights Association (ERA). Clay served as the first president and Chenault, the corresponding secretary. Notably in that role, Chenault helped to organize a speaking tour throughout the state for Zerelda Wallace, a Bourbon County, Ky. native and Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) lecturer. The WCTU had been widely successful in attracting members, so the newly-formed Fayette ERA hoped to build on that network. The idea was that Wallace, superintendent of the WCTU's Department of Franchise, would lecture on “The Home Versus the Saloon,” while incorporating the benefits of woman suffrage. Ultimately, only four of Chenault's fourteen contacts consented to hosting Wallace, and others expressed little interest in female suffrage. Nevertheless, the groundwork laid by early pioneers proved instrumental in furthering the suffrage cause, despite its slow start.
Chenault's correspondence to arrange the Wallace speaking tour and recruit suffrage allies had the effect of encouraging involvement, connecting important players, and contributing to that personal nature which characterized and advanced the early women's rights movement in Kentucky. For example, after Chenault wrote Josephine K. Henry of Versailles about hosting Wallace, Henry responded that she hoped to soon make it to a Fayette ERA meeting, explaining, “I should so much like to meet the ladies who are in sympathy with me.” Earlier she had written, “I forgot to mention that I heard that Mrs. Sarah Humphreys was a suffragist. I have known her for years & and her sister was a dear friend of mine but I rarely see Mrs. H. I never hear of her doing any work for the cause.” After this initial contact by Chenault, Henry became a formidable figure gracing the legislative halls in Frankfort to lobby for laws like the married women's property act, which in 1894 ultimately passed. Likewise, Humphreys not only joined the cause, but became a leader, serving as superintendent of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association's press department, along with writing extensively, and giving speeches. Chenault's 1888 correspondence to Lida Calvert Obenchain of Bowling Green also helped to bring her into the state's growing suffrage movement. One might argue that Chenault's role was minor, merely a correspondent, yet the impact of her work produced a ripple effect—spreading knowledge, connecting people, and advancing women's rights throughout the state.
Henrietta Chenault's family is also of interest to her story. Historian Claudia Knott notes that late-nineteenth-century suffragists found a personal approach most successful in gaining supporters, and when a person publicly favored suffrage or even signed a petition to that effect, his or her stance soon became “common knowledge” in their community. She concludes that, “Indeed, Kentuckians confronted the woman question in the context of family and community relations.” How, then, did Henrietta become so involved in the movement when in 1880, after a women's meeting in her parlor, Mary Jane Warfield Clay wrote to her daughter, Laura Clay, that, “Dr. Chenault is considerably opposed to Mrs. Chenault having any thing to do with it and so I expect we will find a good many masters standing in the way of the enlightenment of their Mrs.”? Perhaps he resisted in the early days of his wife's involvement but was later persuaded. (Interestingly, Mary continued, “Aren't you glad we have no Master? . . . Mean creatures, brutes!”) The record is silent, but their daughter Emily Runyon's story might shed some light. Evidently Dr. Robert Cameron Chenault “violently objected” to his daughter's desire to attend medical school because he thought she was “too ‘delicate' and could not stand the rigors of a doctor's life.” Yet later, Dr. Emily Runyon stated, “My father, seeing me grow stronger rather than depleted, and seeing, too, my eager interest, himself became enthusiastic.” As his daughters also worked for women's rights, it is difficult to imagine that the patriarch remained steadfast in his opposition. Henrietta, then, proved an important role model to the next generation of women.
Chenault only worked with the Kentucky suffrage movement for a short time. She is last mentioned in the KERA convention minutes in 1890 when she is listed as corresponding secretary. Her husband died in 1895, and she likely moved to Richmond, Virginia soon after that to be near her oldest daughter. No evidence suggests that she continued to be active in suffrage work after her move.
Henrietta Bronston Chenault died in Richmond, Virginia. She is buried in the Richmond (Kentucky) Cemetery on January 8, 1918. Just a year after she died, in June 1919, Congress passed an amendment granting women the right to vote, and in 1920, the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.
Deese, Alma Wynelle. Kentucky's First Asylum: A Saga of the People and Practices. 2nd ed. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2012.
Fuller, Paul E. Laura Clay and the Woman's Rights Movement. 1975. Reprint, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
Hutson, Susan Bronston. “Dr. Emily Earle Chenault Runyon.” June 7, 2012. Accessed February 6, 2019. https://www.findagrave.com.
_______________. “Henrietta Earle ‘Ettie' Bronston Chenault.” June 24, 2007. Accessed January 30, 2018. https://www.findagrave.com.
“Josephine K. Henry” file. Woodford County Historical Society, Versailles, KY.
Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Minutes of the Third Annual Convention, 1890.
Knott, Claudia. “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Kentucky, 1879-1920.” PhD diss., University of Kentucky, 1989.
Laura Clay Papers, 1819-1959, bulk 1906-1920. Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY.
“Mrs. Henrietta B. Chenault,” Richmond Dispatch, January 10, 1918, 5.
“National Citizen and Ballot Box.” Accessible Archives. Accessed February 6, 2019. https://www.accessible-archives.com/collections/national-citizen-and-ballot-box/.
“Richmond Doctor Succumbs at Ninety-Eight,” Newport News Daily Press, April 3, 1956, 17.
Richmond, Virginia City Directory, Vol. XXXIII (J. L. Hill Printing CO, 1897), ancestry.com.
Runyon, Emily Chenault. “Remembering Victor C. Vaughan.” Accessed February 6, 2019. www.vaughan.org/bios/vcv/images/winfreyLetter.jpg.
Smith, Mary Jane. “Constructing Womanhood in Public: Progressive White Women in a New South.” PhD diss., Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2002. Accessed February 5, 2019. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_dissertations/2626/.
Winfrey, Henrietta Runyon. “Remembering Victor C. Vaughan.” Accessed February 6, 2019. www.vaughan.org/bios/vcv/images/winfreyLetter.jpg.