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With Suffragist Lyrics to Patriotic Songs, Women’s Chorus Brings History to Life in Paducah

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Whitney Jones Bolin
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WKMS

As Americans celebrate Women’s History Month, the Women’s Suffragist Centennial Chorus is traveling across Kentucky to share the history of women’s right to vote, ramping up to a larger celebration in 2020 for the centennial of the ratification of women’s right to vote.

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On a rainy Saturday at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, The eight-woman chorus donned white dresses and hats similar to the suffragists who fought for the right to vote nearly 100 years ago. They waved banners that read “Votes for Women.”

Organizer Sylvia Coffey said the reason behind the performance is to show that it hasn’t been that long since women gained the right to vote. She wants Kentuckians to know how women fought for the right to vote and the role Kentucky played in that story.

Mary Barr Clay was the leader of women’s suffrage in Kentucky, and her sister Sallie Clay Bennett spoke in front of the U.S. Committee on Woman Suffrage, urging them to allow women to vote. From Versailles, Josephine Henry advocated for the Married Woman’s Property Act that passed in 1894.

Back in present-day Paducah, the chorus marched through the National Quilt Museum exhibit hall chanting, “Votes for women, women votes. Votes for women, women votes.”

The group stopped in the center of the ‘HERstory’ exhibit of brightly colored quilts depicting influential women, such as Hillary Clinton, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, and former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. To the sound of an accordion, the chorus sang familiar tunes with lyrics suffragists altered more than 100 years ago, and the group interspersed the performance with historical insights.

Here’s the suffragette version of Yankee Doodle Dandy:

“When Uncle Sam set up his house / He welcomed every brother / But in the haste of his new life / He quite forgot his mother / Yankee Doodle keep it up / Our brothers must not flout us / Mind the music, keep in step / They will not vote without us. ”

Choir member Doreen Bailey of Lexington said she joined the group to encourage women to use their right to vote. She said during her career in public health, where it was routine to ask those seeking help if they wanted to register to vote, she was discouraged when women would say no. The reason they often gave: they felt the system was broken. She said she thinks the answer to that problem is to show up at the polls.

“If you only have 30 percent of your electorate show up to vote, then how can an elected official really say they’re speaking for the people?” she said.

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Credit Whitney Jones Bolin / WKMS
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WKMS

For chorus member Lane Lewis, singing the suffragist renditions of American folk songs and sharing the movement’s history is about honoring the past and working toward an equal rights amendment.

“What an opportunity it is to have the right to vote,” she said. “Men have had it a long time. Use it. Prize it.”

Lewis shared a story of one of her most encouraging moments she’s experienced with the chorus. She noticed three girls closely watching with the performance, so she approached them after the group finished. After asking when they will get to vote, the girls enthusiastically replied, “Next year!”

Laura Lynch, an Army veteran from Lexington, said the performance made her think of her time in service.

“I was one of the first women to go to the airborne school in the military because women weren’t allowed,” she said. “So we just fought until we got the right to go. So seeing history alive like that I think will help other young women realize that everything didn’t happen just yesterday. It’s been a long fight.”

The Women’s Suffragist Centennial Chorus will continue to march and sing the suffragist lyrics as they prepare for the centennial of women’s right to vote next year.

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