Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mrs. Emma Jester Burnet [aka Burnett], 1853-1929
By Audrey Jamieson and Kaitlynn Smith, and faculty sponsor, Dr. Colleen Hall, Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware
Additional research and editing by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Former Anti-Suffragist, Clubwoman, Republican Party Worker
Described at the time of her death as "an ardent worker for woman suffrage," Emma Jester Burnet had at one time been a supporter of the anti-suffrage cause. In June 1914, she was among a group of "prominent women" who gathered at the estate of Mary Wilson Thompson, the state's second-best-known anti-suffragist, to listen to speeches and endorse a statement drafted by Emily P. Bissell, the best-known Delaware anti-suffragist. In it, thirty-three women rejected woman suffrage and averred that they were "satisfied with the present non-partisan status of women in our State Government." The group soon evolved into the Delaware Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, which in 1915 agitated against a suffrage amendment to the state constitution. Emma Burnet signed the group's protest. When her change of heart occurred is unclear, but by September, 1919, she was the "ardent" suffragist represented in her obituary. It is clear, however, that among Delaware's suffragists and anti-suffragists, her night-to-day conversion was unique.
Born in Dover, Delaware, on February 12th, 1853, Emma Jester was the eldest of three daughters of John H. Jester and Mary Jane McIlvaine Jester. On December 22, 1873, in a Methodist ceremony in Dover, she married Philip Burnet (at times spelled Burnett), a native of Scotland who worked as a clerk in a local bank and later in the insurance business. During her marriage Emma Burnet bore four children, only one of whom, Philip, Jr., survived to adulthood. In 1902, her husband died of Bright's disease in Wilmington, where the family had moved in an effort to seek treatment for his illness. Philip, Jr. took up his father's work, developing the company into the highly successful Continental American Life Insurance Company. Emma Burnet returned to Dover to live.
In Dover, Emma Burnet's social profile resembled that of many women of her class background. In the 1890s, she served a term as corresponding secretary of the Dover Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) branch. Around 1905, she joined the Dover Century Club, the premier white women's club in the city, and in 1915 served as a delegate to the state Federation of Women's Clubs' convention. Although the state WCTU endorsed suffrage in 1888, the Delaware Federation of Women's Clubs refused to take a position on the issue. Still, its activities, particularly championing school reform and improved care for "feeble-minded" Delawareans, brought the members regularly to Dover to lobby the General Assembly for specific pieces of legislation. In 1916, along with her neighbor and suffragist, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, Burnet attended the national convention of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, which had endorsed suffrage in 1914. By that year, she was serving as a Delaware governor's appointee to a commission seeking land and funding for an institution for the "feeble-minded," eventually built as the Stockley Center in Georgetown in 1921.
During the Great War, Emma Burnet participated in Red Cross and Liberty Loan activities, becoming Kent County chair for the Fifth (and final) Victory Loan in 1919. Mabel Ridgely was state chairman for Liberty Loan work. Burnet also served as a delegate to the patriotically oriented State Defense League.
Her endorsement of woman suffrage was evident by September 3, 1919, when she organized an "entertainment" in Rehoboth Beach (where she summered) for about two hundred members of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, NAWSA's state affiliate. In that moment, the state's suffragists were lobbying the pro-suffrage governor, John R. Townsend, Jr., to call a special session of the General Assembly to consider ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment. Knowing that many legislators were spending time in Rehoboth Beach and anticipating the visit of NAWSA leader Carrie Chapman Catt to the state suffrage convention in Dover, suffrage leaders Eva Halpern Robin and Mabel Ridgely planned the event for maximum visibility, and as a way to set their ratification strategy apart from the "sensational methods" and "partisan attacks" of the state's National Woman's Party (NWP) branch. During the unsuccessful special legislative session in spring, 1920, Emma Burnet actively supported ratification from her home at Richardson's Hotel in Dover, not far from the State House. The hotel was a favored lodging spot for legislators and lobbyists.
With national suffrage won in August, 1920, Emma Burnet declared her allegiance to the Republican Party and accepted a position as chairman for Kent County of the Republican Women Voters Committee. Like many of her suffrage co-workers, she also joined the League of Women Voters. Disabled by illness in 1921, she lived to be 76 and died on July 16, 1929 in Wilmington. She was buried with her husband at Lakeside Cemetery in Dover, Delaware.
Genealogical information on the Jester and Burnet families can be gleaned from the vital records, decennial censuses, and genealogical materials found on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and findagrave.org. Local newspapers digitized via ChroniclingAmerica.org and newspapers.com, along with documents available on HathiTrust.org provide details on Emma Burnet's initial anti-suffragism, her suffrage work, civic commitments, and personal life.
Note that Emma Jester Burnet's daughter-in-law, Eleanor Morris Burnet, was a suffragist based in Wilmington during her marriage to Emma's son, Philip Burnet, Jr. Care should be taken to differentiate between the two women in terms of their suffrage work.
The following obituaries included useful information: "Mrs. Emma Burnet is Apoplexy Victim," Wilmington Evening Journal, July 17, 1929, p. 4; "Philip Burnet, Insurance Head, Is Heart Victim," Wilmington Morning News, November 11, 1931, pp. 1, 12; "Funeral of Philip Burnet," Evening Journal, August 16, 1902, p. 2.
The following secondary works provide significant context on Delaware's suffrage story: Mary R. de Vou, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware," in Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marion Björnson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), I: 349-70; and Carol E. Hoffecker, "Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign," Delaware History, 20:3 (Spring-Summer, 1983): 149-67.