Catherine Talty Kenny

Lived:January 1, 1874—January 1, 1950 (aged 76)

Catherine Talty Kenny was a Tennessee suffragist and political organizer.

Born in 1874 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kenny grew up poor with five siblings and a widowed mother who worked as a seamstress to support the family. Bouncing from one tenement apartment to another, Kenny was eventually sent to a Catholic high school, but only attended one semester. She worked odd jobs for the next ten years to support herself and her family.

In 1899, she married John M. Kenny, an ambitious coffee salesman turned Coca-Cola franchise owner. The couple had four children and Kenny often cited her role as a mother as her inspiration for participating in politics. Her husband’s success in business gave Kenny more resources with which to carry out her political work. She joined the Ladies Hermitage Association and the Nashville Capitol Association, both fairly prestigious organizations for wealthy women. By 1913, Kenny turned her eye to woman suffrage and became active in the Nashville Equal Suffrage League. Kenny was able to build a network of elite, progressive women in Nashville who worked to win the vote for women.

Kenny also worked with Democratic Senator Luke Lea to reach out to progressive Democrats – male and female – across the state. In 1913, Kenny became the spokesperson for her local suffrage organization and oversaw an enormous expansion of pro-suffrage materials released by suffragists and published in local newspapers. She also presided over Nashville’s first suffrage parade on May 2, 1914, which spread awareness of the suffrage cause throughout the state. After differences among Tennessee suffragists caused a split in the state suffrage organization, Kenny became the first vice president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc. She also helped organize and promote the 1914 National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Nashville. Throughout the Tennessee suffrage campaign, Kenny emerged as a major leader, working to promote suffrage across the state, organize suffrage strategy, and unceasingly lobby for suffrage in the state legislature until Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920.

In October of 1921, Kenny was elected president of the Tennessee League of Women Voters. Unfortunately, due to stagnating support for women in Tennessee, a series of local political defeats, and family turmoil, Kenny grew frustrated with Tennessee politics and resigned as president in 1925. After her husband died in 1927, Kenny moved permanently from Tennessee. She died in 1950 in New York City, leaving a legacy of Southern progressivism behind.

Bucy, Carole Stanford. Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives: Women in American History. Edited by Kriste Lindenmeyer. Wilmington: SR Books, 2000.