Biographical Sketch of Emma Eaton White

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Emma Eaton White, 1868-1959

By Michael D.H. Wyner, J.D. Wayne State University, Detroit, MI. Prepared for History 5200/7200, "Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Modern America," Prof. Liette Gidlow

Lawyer, Suffragist, Deputy Attorney General, Court Reporter, and Political Activist

Emma Eaton White was born in Black River Falls, Wisconsin on March 14, 1868. Her father, Albridge Eaton, was born in New Hampshire and fought in the 18th regiment of the New Hampshire Infantry during the Civil War. Her mother, Almira Eaton, also a New Hampshire native, served in the Civil War as a nurse.

Emma received a strong formal education which led to her later roles in the legal field. In 1884, she graduated from the University of Iowa and in 1894, she graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. At law school, she participated in student government, working as class secretary. After graduating from law school, she practiced law in Creston, Iowa from 1894 to 1897. From 1897 to 1900, she worked as a legal editor for the West Publishing Company in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 1900, she married Edward Franklin White, a widower with two children from a previous marriage. The wedding took place in St. Paul, Minnesota. Also an attorney, Mr. White likewise worked as a legal editor for the West Publishing Company in St. Paul. In 1904, the Whites welcomed the birth of their daughter, Mira, and in 1907, they moved to Indianapolis. Mr. White soon began working for the Bobbs-Merrill Company and become editor and chief of the law book department in 1911. From 1915 to 1920, Mrs. White also worked at Bobbs-Merrill as a legal editor, a position she returned to later in life.

Mrs. White belonged to a number of organizations and held prominent positions in several of them. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Pi Beta Phi, Phi Delta Delta legal sorority, the Women's Press Club of Indiana, and the Indianapolis Women's Republican Club. In 1916, she became the chair of the political science committee for the Indiana Federation of Women's Clubs and in 1918, she was also named chair of the political science committee for the General Federation of Women's Clubs, a national organization composed of women's clubs from across the country. As part of her work in these committees, she published educational materials to help women learn about political issues. For example, to help women better understand the conflict in World War I, she prepared a study outline entitled "Countries at War" which was used throughout the United States. In 1918, Mrs. White became president of the Legislative Council of Indiana Women. From 1920 to 1924, she served as the chairman of the department of legislation of the General Federation, and from 1924 to 1928 she served as vice president of the General Federation. Finally, in 1930, she became an honorary vice president of the General Federation. Alongside these organizations, White also belonged to the Disciples of Christ and taught Sunday school at her church.

In addition to her work as a clubwoman, Mrs. White continued practicing law, achieving several notable career advancements. From 1921 to 1925 she worked as a deputy to the Indiana attorney general. She was the first woman in Indiana to hold that position. In 1923, she was admitted to practice law at the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, in 1925 she became the court reporter for Indiana's Supreme Court and Appellate courts, marking the first time in Indiana's history that a woman was chosen for a state office.

In 1917, White helped defend Indiana's Maston-McKinley Partial Suffrage Act. Signed by Indiana governor James P. Goodrich on February 28, 1917, this law gave women residents of Indiana the right to vote for presidential electors, constitutional convention delegates, the attorney general, the ratification of a new constitution, and numerous state and local positions. On August 9, 1917, William Knight, an Indiana anti-suffragist, filed a lawsuit against the Marion County Board of Election Commissioners, alleging that Maston-McKinley violated Article II, §2 of Indiana's constitution, which defined eligible voters as "male." To refute this argument, attorneys for the Board, including White, asserted that Article II, §2 only applied to offices explicitly designated in the constitution, and consequently, Indiana's legislature had a right to create voting qualifications for offices not otherwise specified. The attorneys for the Board also argued that Article II, §2 only created unbridgeable voting rights for men, and thus did not limit the power of the legislature to grant suffrage to women. Finally, implying that the liquor lobby was behind the challenge, the Indianapolis News (August 21, 1917) quoted White as asserting, "The law is being attacked by some interests who feel that their political power may be lessened when the women vote and who are seeking to throw down this law under the cloak of respectability of the plaintiff."

Ultimately, the Board's arguments did not prevail. On September 17, 1917, the Marion Superior Court ruled in favor of Knight, holding that the legislature lacked the authority to grant suffrage to women as the constitution clearly defined voting qualifications. Not to be deterred, the Board's attorneys appealed, but on October 26, 1917, Indiana's Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling. Despite losing, this episode reveals White's commitment to women's suffrage. On January 16, 1920, when Indiana's legislature ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, Mrs. White, as President of the Legislative Counsel of Indiana Women, was present for the ceremony. While the Legislative Counsel did not play an active role in pushing for the Nineteenth Amendment, an article from the Indianapolis News (January 16, 1920), reported that it promised to "watch for and fight the introduction of legislation inimical to its interests."

In 1922, Mrs. White drafted a uniform marriage and divorce law, which was introduced into Congress on January 24, 1923 by Sen. Arthur Capper (R-KS). At the time, marriage requirements differed greatly between states. As a result, some states allowed women as young as twelve to marry. Under the proposed law, women could marry at 16, and men at 18, and divorces would only be granted in limited cases such as adultery, abandonment, or physical and mental cruelty. Though the bill would have initially banned miscegenation, Capper eliminated this section due to protests from African American groups. Though Capper continued to push for the law in 1925, 1927, and 1930, it was never adopted.

White also strongly supported prohibition. While president of the Legislative Council, she worked with the organization to lobby for the Eighteenth Amendment, which was ratified by Indiana's General Assembly on January 14, 1919. According to the Los Angeles Times (May 28, 1926), White stressed that prohibition must be firmly enforced. "Did you ever hear it proposed that a deadly scourge could best be controlled by lifting the quarantine here a little, there a little . . . and letting the public generally take it or leave it?"

White worked to gain civil rights for women because she believed they offered a unique role as caregivers and needed special protection. In an article published in the 1920 edition of World Call, a Disciples of Christ missionary magazine, White stated, "There will be no millennium because of their admission to the ballot, but it is inevitable that to a great degree politics will be cleaner." Additionally, White pushed Indiana's legislature to take early action on the Givan house bill, a proposed Indiana law to create greater oversight for women and children working in factories. According to an article in the Indianapolis News (February 17, 1919), White argued, "If the bill does not pass . . . Indiana will present the anomalous situation of having a quarter of a million women and children wage earners with no protection or supervision over their labor than the usual inspection of factories." Finally, according to an article from the Oakland Tribune (December 30, 1923), Mrs. White opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, stressing, "There are ways of securing political and civil equality . . . without jeopardizing the legislation so slowly built up, which recognizes the real, unalterable, inherent differences between man and woman."

Despite the vibrancy of her professional life, White experienced several setbacks. In 1917 and again in 1931, she lost presidential elections for the Indiana Federation and in 1928, she lost in the presidential election for the General Federation, On January 2, 1932, Mr. White died from a cerebral hemorrhage. In 1946, her grandson, Edward L. White, a World War II pilot who had been reported as missing since April 8, 1944, was declared dead.

White's later years involved retirement and time with family. In 1944 she moved to Lake Worth, Florida, where she retired. She later moved to California to be closer to her daughter Mira, and in on March 26, 1959, she died in Bakersfield, California. Mrs. White was survived by Mira, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. She was buried in Rest Haven cemetery in Edinburg, Indiana, the same cemetery in which her husband was buried.

A photograph of Mrs. White can be found in The Indianapolis News, May 16, 1918, page 3, https://newspapers.library.in.gov/cgi-bin/indiana?a=d&d=INN19180516-01.1.3&srpos=24&e.

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