Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Sallie Clay Bennett, 1841-1935

By Melanie Beals Goan, University of Kentucky

Sarah Lewis "Sallie" Clay, the daughter of Cassius Marcellus Clay and Mary Jane Warfield Clay, was born in 1841 and grew up in Richmond, Kentucky. Sallie's younger sister, Laura, became the most recognized of the famous "Clay girls," known for their work on behalf of votes for women. Laura's status as an unmarried woman allowed her to build a career out of suffrage work that Sallie's responsibilities as a wife and mother to five children would not allow. Still, Sallie led the Madison County Equal Rights Association, one of Kentucky's most active suffrage locals, for over four decades and became well-known nationally for her expertise in constitutional law.

Clay's early life was eventful. Her father was a famous abolitionist who was frequently called to defend his ideas and sometimes his life with a bowie knife. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln named him United States Minister to Russia in recognition of his contributions to the Republican Party. The family moved to St. Petersburg, but Mary Jane did not stay long. After only a few months, she traveled back to Kentucky with her children, crossing a war-torn nation. During the war, the family's home, White Hall became a Union base, leading Confederates to raid it in July 1864.

Sallie married at age 28, later in life than was typical for women in the nineteenth century. She wed James Bennett, a neighbor, on June 2, 1869, and over the next twelve years she gave birth to six children (one died at birth). James was a farmer and also served as a director of the Farmers National Bank of Richmond. His land holdings were extensive, augmented when his wife inherited her share of White Hall, which Cassius Clay divided among his children in 1869. James invested in a number of community ventures, including a hotel in 1888. The couple were deeply religious, active in the Madison County Sunday School Association. They also took a leading role in Republican Party politics on the county, state, and national levels. Sallie assisted in efforts to organize and fund an infirmary for the community and to assist illiterate adults through the Moonlight Schools movement.

Sallie's biggest priority, however, apart from domestic responsibilities, was woman's rights. Susan B. Anthony visited Madison County in October 1879, a guest of Sallie's older sister, Mary Barr Clay. That visit led the Clay women to establish the Madison County Equal Rights Association soon after, with Sallie as its first president. Sallie got right to work. She assisted with a petition drive, and she made her first visit to the Kentucky Senate in 1882 as a representative of the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association, lobbying the judiciary committee for presidential and municipal voting rights, women's property rights, guardianship rights for mothers, and the appointment of women as matrons in state asylums. Bennett also began writing a weekly column on women's rights for the Richmond Register. When the KWSA reorganized in 1888 as the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Bennett became a member of its executive committee, part of its lecture bureau, and a generous donor.

With the encouragement of a supportive spouse, she attended national suffrage meetings in cities like Chicago, New Orleans, and Des Moines. National leaders recognized the value of the Clay name, and they courted the sisters, who became popular speakers at the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and National American Woman Suffrage (NWSA) conventions. Sallie addressed the NWSA convention in 1880, speaking "in her sweet, motherly way" to 150 listeners. She emphasized the advantages that would come to children if their mothers were enfranchised and she highlighted the Bible's support of woman's rights. Bennett's arguments in favor of suffrage often emphasized God's intention that women should be man's equal. Of the Clay sisters, Sallie and Laura were the most devout in their Christian beliefs.

While some suffragists were willing to see women enfranchised by any means necessary, Sallie was focused on a single strategy. Starting in 1895 and every year for several decades, she paid to print and mail a memorial to each congressman asking them to allow women to vote in congressional and presidential elections based on existing provisions of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment. In some ways Bennett's legal wrangling looked very similar to the "New Departure," which suffragists had crafted in the 1870s. The New Departure proved a dead end, following the Supreme Court's ruling in Minor v. Happersett. Bennett, however, continued to look for loopholes and new ways to read the Fourteenth Amendment. One reason Sallie preferred this method of enfranchisement was that it would give states continuing control over state and local elections and would allow southerners to protect white supremacy. Though Bennett came from a family of emancipationists, her race prejudices hardened alongside the nation's commitment to segregation by the turn of the century. Her arguments that women should share in the rights previously granted to black men became increasingly shrill. In a 1907 Woman's Journal essay, she argued that white women needed the vote to defend themselves against black male rapists emboldened by their legal superiority. In spite of her persistence, Sallie's entreaties to Congress, delivered several times in person, never received serious consideration, even when her sister Laura tweaked her argument and made it the basis of her proposed United States Election bill in 1911.

Sallie remained active in suffrage work after her husband's death in 1908. In 1914, she ended a quarter century run as president of the Madison County E.R.A. Her daughter-in-law, Esther Burnam Bennett, took the helm and Sallie moved into the position of treasurer. The following year, her daughter, Elise Bennett Smith became president of KERA.

NAWSA's decision to prioritize a federal amendment after 1916 split the ranks of Kentucky suffragists. Sallie agreed with Laura that a federal amendment threatened the South's cherished values. She had long argued that a new federal amendment was unnecessary. A decade earlier, she had given "a most interesting paper on the inadvisability of...a sixteen amendment" before the annual NAWSA convention. As the likelihood increased that Congress would pass a federal amendment and send it to the states for ratification, Bennett joined forces with her sister to lobby lawmakers at the Kentucky Republican convention in May 1919 and to pen editorials in opposition, but she stopped short of resigning from the Kentucky Equal Rights Association and joining Laura's Citizens Committee for a State Suffrage Amendment.

Bennett continued to vigorously defend the U.S. Constitution until the end of her life. Just weeks before her death, she criticized FDR and the "dictatorial" threat he posed to constitutional law in a national editorial. She died February 28, 1935 at the age of 94. She is buried in the Richmond Cemetery.


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

  • 1880 Census
  • Kentucky, Compiled Marriages, 1851-1900
  • U. S., Find a Grave Index 1600s-Current

The Richmond Climax, May 9, 1888, 2.

"The New Hotel," The Richmond Climax, February 29, 1888.

"Religious," The Richmond Climax, May 16, 1888, 3.

"To the Rockies and Beyond," The Richmond Climax, June 20, 1888, 3.

"Infirmary Officers," The Richmond Climax, November 2, 1898, 2.

"Moonlight Schools," The Richmond Climax-Madisonian, February 3, 1915, 8.

"Letter from Kentucky," The Woman's Journal, December 6, 1879, 392,$398i

The History of Woman Suffrage, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Jocelyn Gage, vol. 3, 1876-1885 (Rochester, NY: Susan B. Anthony, 1886), 818-820. [LINK]

Minutes of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, November 19th, 20th, & 21st, 1889, Court House, Lexington, Kentucky, with Reports and Constitution (Lexington: Will S. Marshall Jr., 1890), University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center (UKSCRC), Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.

Minutes of the Eighth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, December 10th, 11th, and 12th, 1895, Court- House of, Richmond, KY (n.p., 1895), UKSCRC.

"Personal," The Richmond Climax, January 27, 1897, 2.

"Personal," The Richmond Climax, March 18, 1903, 4.

"The Equal Rights Meeting," The Richmond Climax, November 13, 1889, 5.

"Equal Suffrage Meeting in Chicago," Lincoln Beacon (Lincoln, KS), June 24, 1880, 1.

Claudia Knott, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Kentucky, 1879-1920" (PhD diss., University of Kentucky, 1989).

"Kentucky," The Woman's Journal 38:1 (January 5, 1907), 4.

Report of the Twenty-Fifth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Held at Owensboro, Kentucky, November 6, 7 and 8, 1914 (Louisville: C. T. Dearing Co., [1915]), UKSCRC.

Minutes of the Twenty-Sixth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Held at Lexington, Kentucky, November 8, 9 and 10, 1915, (n. p.), UKSCRC.

Report of the Eighteenth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Held at Richmond, KY, November 14th and 15th, 1907, (Newport, KY: The Newport Printing Co.., n.d.), UKSCRC.

Mrs. James Bennett, "Circular Letter to Members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association," The Richmond Climax-Madisonian, February 21, 1917, 2.

"Local Suffragists were 'On the Job'," Richmond Daily Register, May 16, 1919, 1.

Mrs. James Bennett, "The Ratification of the Proposed Woman Suffrage Amendment," Richmond Daily Register, February 24, 1920, 2.

"Open Letter to the Public," [June 11, 1919], signed by Alice Bronston Oldham, Laura Clay, Dunster Gibson Foster, Elizabeth Burgess McQuaid, PDGFP, box 64, folder 3, Pettit, Duncan, Gibson Family Papers, box 64, folder 3, UKSCRC.

Mrs. James Bennett, "Constitutional Role," Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, SD), January 5, 1935, 6.

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