Louise Gasser Kirtley was described Thursday as being ahead of her time — both in her worldview and her profession — and someone who fought for equality, especially for women.
In conjunction with a celebration of the 101st anniversary of the 19th Amendment — which in 1920 gave women across America the legal right to vote — a short parade was held downtown followed by a rededication ceremony for Kirtley’s memorial on the Daviess County Courthouse lawn.
Several local leaders credited Kirtley for her bravery and persistence in fighting for women’s rights during her lifetime.
Kirtley was described as a compassionate, proud, and hardworking woman. Kirtley, they noted, was one of Owensboro’s first female attorneys, and she went out of her way to fight for underrepresented groups of people, including women going through divorces.
According to local historian Aloma Dew, Kirtley was a woman who “was not willing to settle for less.” Even before she was legally able to vote, Kirtley saw herself as an equal.
She excelled on the debate team in high school, Dew said, and went on to become a lawyer in 1931. Kirtley was one of only two women in her University of Louisville law school class, and she graduated at the top of her class.
Kirtley opened up her own law practice in downtown Owensboro. Dew said Kirtley “fed the people” of her city by instilling courage in its residents for decades afterward.
“She did what needed to be done,” Dew said. “Even in high school, she was working and speaking out for women’s right to vote. She couldn’t vote until she was 21, but as a high school senior, she was already arguing for that.”
As part of a rededication ceremony to her life, Kirtley’s son Bill acknowledged those who supported the family over the years.
“I want to follow what my mother would do,” he said. “She would graciously thank Aloma Dew, Jeanie Owen Miller and the Daviess County Fiscal Court for the honor they have bestowed on her.”
Bill said his mother had decided at a very young age to become a practicing attorney. As for why Kirtley had made that professional decision in the 2nd grade, Bill said he believed much of it stemmed from his mother’s upbringing.
Kirtley’s mother was forced to give up the family business after her father died. Kirtley — the 11th of 12 children — was only 5 at the time.
“I imagine her mother had a lot of dealings with lawyers, and (my) mother could sort of see what work they were doing and thought, ‘I can do this,’” he said.
City Commissioner Mark Castlen said Thursday’s large turnout celebrating the 19th Amendment’s anniversary spoke volumes about the community at large.
“That says a lot for our city, as far as people supporting each other, and people wanting to vote,” he said. “… Let us not forget that this right was not given. It was fought for and won by strong, determined women.”
Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said Kirtley’s monument, which was erected last year, was the first memorial dedicated to a woman that was placed on the courthouse lawn.
“Certainly, Louise Gasser Kirtley was a woman of note,” Mattingly said. “But there are lots of women of note in this community that live their lives, and they are never noted, except by those who love them.”
Mattingly went on to highlight the lives of several women who’d made huge impacts in Daviess County over the years.
As for equality at the local level, Mattingly said there was still a long way to go until that happened.
“We won’t be equal in this community until we have a woman for mayor, or a woman for county judge,” he said. “I hope that happens in my lifetime, but I’m not sure it will if I don’t remind each and every one of you that the woman of note in my life today is my wife, Judy. And without her guidance, and without her encouragement, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”