Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Jessica (Jessie) Riddell Firth, 1864–1950
By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD, Professor of History, Northern Kentucky University
Second Vice-President, Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA), 1913–1915; Chairwoman, KERA State Convention, 1914; Recording Secretary, KERA, 1919
Jessica (Jessie) Riddell was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1864. She married Charles F. Firth, a freight agent for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. The couple lived in Covington, Kentucky, where Jessie became instrumental in both the women's suffrage and temperance movements.
Firth followed in the footsteps of Northern Kentucky's innovative suffrage leaders, including Eugenia Farmer (1835–1924). In 1894, Farmer joined Laura Clay of Lexington and Josephine K. Henry of Versailles in lobbying for the successful passage of a state General Assembly bill permitting women in second-class cities (Covington, Lexington, and Newport) to not only vote in municipal school board elections, but also to serve on their school boards. The bill received the steadfast support of Covington's powerful state senator, William Goebel (1856–1900), and actually predated the same right for women in the state's only first-class city, Louisville. In autumn 1895, the second-class cities of Covington, Lexington and Newport became the first large municipalities in Kentucky to permit partial women's suffrage. In 1902, the state legislature revoked the law, partly in opposition to the temperance agenda of many of the suffragists, as well as their inclusion of black women in municipal elections.
Jessie Firth served as president of the Kenton County Equal Franchise Association, the Covington Equal Rights Association, and the Covington Women's Christian Temperance Union. In March 1913, she heeded the call of national suffrage leaders and joined thousands of suffragists in a march in Washington, D. C. Returning to Covington, Firth completed plans for a major suffrage rally at the city's Odd Fellows Hall, featuring keynote speaker, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge.
For the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA), Firth served as Second Vice-President (1913–1915), chairwoman of the state convention (1914), and Recording Secretary (1919). In 1914, on behalf of KERA, she traveled across Kentucky for seventy-days. The 1914 KERA convention minutes report that she traveled "4,550 miles by rail and 114 miles by mail hack and auto bus," visiting "twenty-three county institutes and spoke twenty-seven times; appointed chairman [sic] for ten county leagues, resuscitated four leagues out of which life had gone, strengthened a few weak-kneed apostles of the faith, and secured 839 members."
On behalf of KERA, Firth was also an official state delegate to a number of annual NAWSA conventions. In 1915, she spent about ten weeks in New Jersey assisting with that state's Woman Suffrage Referendum.
Firth was a charter member of the Covington Woman's Club, founded in 1914. She attended First Methodist Church in Covington. Firth also chaired the Covington Housewives' League, which according to the Kentucky Post crusaded for "fair prices and government food stores at the end of World War I."
In 1919, at the end of the war, Covington Mayor John Craig appointed Firth as the city's official representative for buying government food supplies. In the same year, she was appointed to serve on a Kenton County commission to stamp out illiteracy. The following year, in 1920, Kentucky became the 23rd state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment for national women's suffrage. Thereafter, KERA gradually transitioned into the Kentucky League of Women Voters (KLWV). Firth served as secretary of the state KLWV, as well as president of the Kenton County League of Women Voters. In 1923, she became the first woman in Kenton County to run for a state public office, as the Republican Party's official candidate for the 64th District seat of the state House of Representatives. She lost the election.
Jessie Firth died at age 86 in October 1950. She lived at 911 Scott Street in Covington and was preceded in death by her husband. She was buried in Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
Paul A. Tenkotte, "Our Rich History: Jessica Firth, first Kenton County woman to run for state office, was change agent," Northern Kentucky Tribune, November 28, 2016. https://www.nkytribune.com/2016/11/our-rich-history-jessica-firth-first-kenton-county-woman-to-run-for-state-office-was-change-agent/
Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, eds. The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009).
"Mrs. Jessie Firth Dies in Covington," Kentucky Post, October 10, 1950, p. 1.
Report of the Twenty-First Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Held at Owensboro, Kentucky, November 6, 7 and 8, 1914. Louisville: C. T. Dearing Printing Co., 1914.