Earlier this month, Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman announced plans to install a sculpture of 20th-century educator Nettie Depp in the state Capitol. The bronze likeness, set to be unveiled next August, will be the historic seat of government’s first statue honoring a woman.
In 1913, Depp became the first woman elected to public office in Barren County, writes Amy Roe for the Kentucky Historical Society. During her four years as superintendent, she improved existing schools and established new ones. After declining to campaign for a second term, she returned to her roots by serving as a principal and teacher.
“[S]even years before women earned full voting rights in Kentucky, Nettie Depp advocated for improved education for every Kentuckian, regardless of their gender or their race,” said Coleman on August 5, as quoted by Sarah Ladd of the Louisville Courier Journal. “She was a true visionary in education reform and she was also a suffragist.”
Amanda Matthews, the artist who designed the sculpture of Depp, started campaigning to install a statue of a woman in the Kentucky State Capitol after reading a 2014 Courier Journal article that noted “the closest thing to a woman honored by a full-scale statue on public property in Kentucky is Carolina, Gen. John Breckinridge Castleman’s horse.” (A list compiled by H-Net identifies several other statues of women across the state, including a 2015 sculpture of nun Catherine Spalding and Matthews’ 2019 likeness of black journalist Alice Dunnigan.) She worked closely with Eleanor Jordan, then-executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women, to bring this vision to fruition. Jordan and the rest of the commission ultimately chose Depp, who happens to be Matthews’ great-great aunt, as the ideal candidate for the monument, and in 2017, Kentucky’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission approved the project unanimously.
Matthews’ final design depicts Depp in period-specific clothing. She holds a book titled Art of the Modern Masters and wears a dragonfly hatpin and signet ring honoring the Greek goddess of wisdom, Artemis.
According to the documentary Dreamers and Doers: Voices of Kentucky Women, educated women at the turn of the 20th century had three main career choices: becoming typists, librarians or teachers. Though women were still disenfranchised, they could hold public office relevant to these professions and—like Depp—advocate for causes such as education reform.
“[Depp] spoke very plainly,” says Matthews in the documentary. “The newspapers said she spoke like a man. And people listened.”
As superintendent, Depp oversaw the construction of 13 schoolhouses and renovations to 50 existing structures, reports Hakim Bishara for Hyperallergic. When a local women’s college closed in 1913, she transformed the building into the county’s first four-year public high school. She also argued for county judges to more strictly enforce Kentucky’s compulsory education laws, which required children between the ages of 7 and 16 to attend school.
The reformer’s views on segregation are difficult to pin down, as no historical records explicitly reference her stances. Hyperallergic notes that she “does not appear to have advocated for integration” of the 100 segregated schools within Barren County but cites a 1915 report in which Depp wrote, “We need some new [school] houses for colored children, as this population moves from place to place so rapidly that we need to put these [school] houses on wheels to keep up with the yearly moving.”
Speaking with Hyperallergic, Matthews says, “In the context of Kentucky in 1915, this should not be understated. Barren County Kentucky was located in solidly Confederate territory only a few decades prior. Depp’s public advocacy on these issues was groundbreaking, and possibly even dangerous.”
Though Hyperallergic suggests that Depp helped pen an endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson, who held intensely segregationist views, ahead of the 1920 election, Matthews tells Smithsonian, “I do not have any data confirming that Ms. Nettie Depp personally or publicly endorsed Woodrow Wilson’s nomination for re-election in 1920 or ever made any public comments about segregation. However, there is much evidence that she dedicated her life to improved education for all children, including minority children and girls, and she never wavered on her stance on that.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a comment from Matthews regarding Depp’s stances on segregation. Previously, the story stated that Matthews campaigned to install a statue of Depp in the Kentucky State Capitol. In fact, Eleanor Jordan and the Kentucky Commission on Women selected Depp as the monument’s subject.