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A century later, still singing for suffrage

Story by Bailey Vandiver | Photos by Arden Barnes

We’re coming, free America Ten million women strong, We simply ask for liberty, For that we’ve labor’d long

The women’s voices echoed off the walls of the Kentucky Capitol rotunda. And their voices echoed down through history, continuing to sing what millions of women sang in the years leading up to 1920, when the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution finally gave women the right to vote.

Behold our grand amendment, For your ears we have a quote: We’re marching to our vote!

The voices belong to the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Chorus, who began singing together in 2018 in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment.

The chorus sang at the Capitol on Feb. 13 as part of a joint celebration for the 100th anniversary of the League of Women Voters and the 19th amendment. The civic organization began on Feb. 14, 1920, six months before the Constitution officially promised that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged… on account of sex.”

The League of Women Voters event is just one of many performances that the chorus has done in recent months; their January schedule was packed.

“Until August, it’s going to be really, really busy,” said Sylvia Coffey, founder and coordinator of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Chorus.

Just the day before, the chorus had sung at the Old State Capitol for the “Her Flag” event. “Her Flag” is a collaborative, nationwide art project that celebrates each of the 36 states that ratified the 19th amendment.

“There’s singers again,” one woman remarked to another as they entered the rotunda before the League of Women Voters event.

Members of the Women's Suffrage Centennial Chorus sit in front of a statue of Alben Barkley.

The chorus is hard to miss: Each woman is in full early 20th century suffragist costume, which constitutes a white dress and a purple, yellow and white sash.

“And of course you have to have your white hat,” Coffey said.

Coffey said this look did not grow popular with suffragists until the 1910s, when they began marching.

“What can women wear that everybody would, you know, stand out, would look alike?” she said. “White.”

Some people think they can’t be part of the chorus because they can’t sing, but “it hasn’t stopped us,” Coffey said. There is just one requirement to be in the chorus: You must own a white dress.

Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! We’re marching to our vote!

Though the chorus began in 2018, Coffey’s efforts to commemorate the 19th amendment’s centennial began in 2014.

Coffey had recently learned more about suffragists and their movement by reading books about Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and more.

“It totally got my attention,” she said.

She began planning a centennial celebration for 2020, and others joined her efforts, which will culminate in an Aug. 22 march and celebration in Frankfort.

It was Nancy Atcher, one of the 16 current chorus members, who said in 2018 that the group should start a chorus.

They did research to find the original songs that suffragists were singing. One song dates from 1795, long before the 72-year-long women’s suffragist movement officially began in 1848.

Suffragists often sang during public events, including parades and conventions, said UK history professor Melanie Goan.

“Very early on in Kentucky, suffragists often sung hymns and religious music when they gathered,” Goan wrote in an email. “Over time, they began to write new songs to punctuate their demands. They often took well-known tunes and rewrote the lyrics.”

One repurposed hymn is “New Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which the chorus sang to close the League of Women Voters event. Rather than God’s truth marching on, as in the original hymn, women are marching to their vote:

To that more perfect union That was promised by our sires, Not only of the nation, But around our hearth and fires

The chorus did not sing these words alone; women legislators stood alongside them to sing that closing hymn.

The chorus members are mostly of retirement age— Coffey is 74— but the youngest suffragist to sing that day was only 9: Lila Beshear, daughter of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear.

Under the tricolor sash given to her by the chorus, Lila Beshear wore a long white dress and a purple jacket— suffragist colors. She and her mother, First Lady Britainy Beshear, sang together.

Chorus member Lane Lewis said outreach to young girls is one of the main reasons why she wanted to join the group.

As they were performing at different events, Lewis said she would see 13-and-14-year-old girls who “had no idea about this history, none.”

“It’s important history,” Lewis said. “We’ve got to share it.”

“Women’s history, it is so hidden, so well hidden,” Coffey said. “To be strong, determined women, we need to remember [suffragists] and recognize them and learn from them.” Lewis has a granddaughter who will vote for the first time this year, exactly 100 years after hardworking women gained that right for her. Lewis plans to accompany her to the poll in full suffragist costume.

“You know, women are over 50 percent of our population,” Lewis said. “Come on, we can make a difference. We gotta get out and vote.”

In our glorious republic

Equal justice shall be law

Our freedom with no flaw!

Lewis will likely attract some strange looks at the poll, and it won’t be the first time. “We get approached a lot by people going, ‘Uh, okay, what’s going on?’” said chorus member Joyce Albro. “It’s fun. It’s a conversation starter.”

Albro, who was the first woman elected to the district bench in Franklin County in the 1980s, joined the chorus because a friend was involved.

“It’s the sort of thing that I have dedicated my life to,” she said. “Pursuing equality for women just seems logical to me.”

Women’s history and women’s rights are not only easily forgotten but also too easily taken for granted, Albro said.

“If we take it for granted, we’ll lose it,” she said.

The chorus is “a good visual” for this history, Albro said— a way to keep history current and conspicuous.

“It’s been really uplifting,” Albro said. “It gives one grounds for hope.”

Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! We’re marching to our vote!

Doraine Bailey, left, and Joyce Albro, perform during the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the 19th Amendment.


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