A leader in Mississippi’s movement for suffrage for women, Belle Kearney was born in Madison County on 6 March 1863, the daughter of Walter Gunston Kearney, a planter and politician, and Susannah Owens Kearney. Belle was educated at nearby Canton Ladies Academy and tutored students at home before accepting a teaching position in the Mississippi public school system. During the summer Kearney furthered her own education, attending the Normal College at Iuka and an adult lecture program at the Southern Chautauqua at Monteagle, Tennessee.
Inspired by the oratory of Frances E. Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Kearney abandoned teaching for a career as a lecturer and exponent of prohibition. At the 1889 Mississippi WCTU convention in Crystal Springs, she was appointed state superintendent and organizer of the Young Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Loyal Temperance Legion. Describing the WCTU as “the discoverer, the developer of Southern women,” Kearney traveled throughout Mississippi, lecturing, organizing local chapters, and conducting business meetings. In 1891 she became a national lecturer and organizer for the WCTU, and four years later she was elected the organization’s state president, though she soon resigned to attend the WCTU’s international convention in London.
After lecturing and traveling through Europe, Kearney returned to the United States and wrote an autobiography, A Slaveholder’s Daughter (1900), which included her thoughts on race, class, and the role of women in the postwar South. She also took up the cause of woman suffrage, a movement that was closely allied with the WCTU. She was appointed vice president of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association in 1897 and became an outspoken advocate for the need to enfranchise literate white women to “insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained.” Her whites-only position was not endorsed by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and in 1906 Kearney established the Southern Woman Suffrage Conference, which tried but failed to persuade the Mississippi legislature to enfranchise literate white women.
Undeterred, Kearney remained a strong advocate of suffrage while becoming active in the Social Purity Movement, which promoted higher moral standards and sex education. In 1907 Kearney served as field secretary for the World Purity Federation, and in 1921 she published Conqueror or Conquered, a novel that warned of the dangers of venereal disease.
The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 opened up the possibility of a political career. Kearney ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1922 but became the first woman elected to the Mississippi State Senate the following year. She devoted her time in office to improving opportunities for women and campaigning for tougher Prohibition legislation, with limited success. While she helped to win the introduction of prayer at the commencement of each Senate session, she failed to garner support for antilynching laws. After completing her term, Kearny embarked on another series of lecture tours, finally returning to Vernon Heights, where she died in 1939.
- Belle Kearney Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Nancy Carol Tipton, “‘It Is My Duty’: The Public Career of Belle Kearney” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1975)
- Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (1993)