By Christina Hevel, undergraduate, Loyola University Chicago
Elsa E. Burnett was born in 1866 in Tennessee. She married Homer T. Burnett in 1899 and the couple settled in Indianapolis, Indiana, the home from which Elsa launched a vibrant career in the woman suffrage movement. The couple resided in Indianapolis in 1900 and lived with Edward Robbins, a 13-year-old son of Elsa's from an earlier marriage. The 1910 census found them in Indianapolis, living with Edward, now 21, and three lodgers. In 1920 the couple resided in Indianapolis as lodgers. Homer was employed as a traveling salesman in all three years and Elsa was noted as bearing two children, only one of whom was still living.
Burnett started in politics on the steering committee of the Legislative Council of Indiana Women, a group consisting of members from many different women's clubs in Indiana who lobbied the state legislature together on behalf of maternalist and feminist policies. Once a proposed measure was voted on within the council, the steering committee would act to take the proposal to their Congressmen. "The 75 delegates of the steering committee," notes historian Jenifer Kalvatis, "discussed topics such as women and children, schools, women and children in industry, health legislation, housing, suffrage, and prohibition." In January of 1919, the group sent a cablegram to President Woodrow Wilson regarding the women's suffrage amendment, stating, "Our democracy at home fails."
Burnett was also a member of the Congressional Union (CU), which eventually became the National Woman's Party (NWP). Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, originally active in the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), founded the CU in April of 1913 as an organization focused squarely on activism around a federal amendment. Paul and Burns broke away from NAWSA, but would later reunite with the group. Burnett was a member, chairman and eventually elected president of the Indiana branch of the NWP. In 1919, Congress finally passed a federal women's suffrage amendment, and in 1920, the 19th Amendment was signed by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. Elsa Burnett was 54 years old.
Burnett was also a staff member for the journal, The Suffragist. Created by the Congressional Union, it focused on the rights of women and the ratification of the suffrage amendment. Reporting on the latest developments of the movement, it aimed to build financial and political support for the passage of the 19th amendment. The National Woman's Party used this newspaper, with its powerful graphics and articles, as a tool in the fight for their cause. The newspaper stopped printing after the amendment's passage. Elsa Burnett died in 1945 at the age of 79.
1900-1920 Federal Manuscript Censuses for Indianapolis. Accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.
Ancestry.com, Indiana Index to Select Marriages 1870-1992, reference ID pg202 rn47.
"Big Massachusetts meetings endorse suffrage," The Suffragist, 6:24 (1918), 10.
Evans, Sara. Born for Liberty (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).
Kalvaitis, Jennifer. "Indianapolis Women Working for the Right to Vote," accessed at https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/handle/1805/3747.
"Suffragist Newspapers, Sewall-Belmont House Museum." Sewall-Belmont House Museum. Accessed Sept. 15 2015. http://www.nationalwomansparty.org/learn/national-womans-party/.
"Women Chosen Who Will Help in Legislature," Kokomo Tribune, 11 Jan. 1919.