Nettie Depp Sculpture for KY State Capitol Building
Nettie Depp, a “New Woman” in Kentucky
Nettie Bayless Courts Depp (November 21, 1874 – August 3, 1932) came from a large family in western Kentucky whose parents made sure she was well educated. She graduated from the Normal School of Liberty College in Glasgow and became a teacher. This was an acceptable and often encouraged career for an ambitious woman of this time period. This was the age of the "New Woman" who experienced greater opportunities for education and public involvement than ever before, either through work or through campaigns for social changes such as for women’s suffrage, for better living conditions and child care. The New Woman challenged gender norms by assertively presenting a public presence unlike the earlier Victorian ideals of womanhood. Yet, in western Kentucky, a conservative stronghold after the Civil War, the typical Gibson Girl, Progressive reformer or Hollywood vamp was not tolerated. Depp successfully traversed a tightrope of ambition and leadership over the larger culture of male-dominated politics, race and class based on white male privilege.
Depp was the first woman elected to public office in Barren County when she won the office of county school superintendent in 1913. Unlike her predecessors, she brought a strong sense of fiscal responsibility to the position, building and repairing the county’s public schoolhouses while bringing the county’s educational system out of debt by the end of her time in office. To support a more standardized business operation in the schools and more accountable expectations for teachers, she introduced and implemented a common curriculum for all schools in the county. Referring to her own educational experiences at Liberty College in Glasgow, she added music, art, and business to the typical set of grade school classes. In a time when families believed that children should work to support the family income rather than go to school, Depp broke tradition in rural Kentucky and enforced the state’s school compulsory attendance laws – working with the county judge to fine those parents who refused to make sure their children went to school.
In the transitional period between the Kentucky statewide law granting women the right to vote in 1912 and full suffrage in 1920, Depp served as an able and successful representative of Kentucky’s version of a New Woman professional. Advocating for improved education for all Kentuckians, black and white, Depp commanded respect from all those seeking a better democracy, social order and a more informed and vibrant citizenry to maintain it. She was approached to stand for office again in 1917 but she chose instead to serve as a school principal and step out of the dangerous sphere of electoral politics. Nevertheless, her exemplary leadership and bravery as an early leader in local politics deserves recognition, and her story can inspire us all to take a more active role in keeping our democracy alive, including an inaugural run for political office.