Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Carolyn Burnham Kilgore, 1838-1909

By Mark Bushnell, journalist and historian

National Woman Suffrage Association: Vice-President and Advisory Committee

Carolyn "Carrie" Sylvester Burnham was born on January 20, 1838, in Craftsbury, Vermont, to Eliza Annis Arnold Burnham and James E. Burnham.

Carrie Burnham attended the Common District School in Craftsbury from the ages of 4 to 12, at which time she left school to work in the family-owned woolen mill and help keep house after her father's death. Burnham was raised a Free Will Baptist, but after her father died she joined the Methodist Church with the goal of becoming a missionary. She left the Methodist Church while living in Wisconsin and didn't join another religious group.

Burnham began teaching at a district school in Craftsbury in 1853 at the age of 15. During the next several years, she taught school in Craftsbury, Greensboro Danville and Newbury, and attended school at Craftsbury Academy, Newbury Seminary, and the Wesleyan Seminary in Montpelier. She was forced to leave school when she contracted typhoid fever. After recovering, she travelled to Wisconsin to live with one of her sisters. Burnham taught school near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and then at Madison. She initially taught at a grammar school, then while in Madison she taught at a high school, taking the place of the male teacher of Latin, Greek, and the higher mathematics. Burnham subsequently taught and was preceptress at the Evansville Seminary and Normal School in Evansville, Wisconsin, where she taught French and German, as well as drawing and painting.

In November 1863, she moved to New York City and studied at the Hygeio-Therapeutic Medical College, with the intention of teaching rather than practicing medicine. In 1865, she earned the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College, becoming the first woman to earn that degree in New York State. She was also a member of the first class of women admitted to study at Bellevue Hospital Clinics in New York City. Also in 1865, she took a course in physical training at Dr. Dio Lewis' Normal Institute for Physical Culture in Boston, Massachusetts, receiving a diploma and briefly working there as a physician's assistant.

In September of 1865, Burnham moved to Philadelphia, and in the summer of 1866 purchased a finishing school called the French School for Young Ladies, which she operated for a few years. In November 1869, shortly after closing the school, Burnham registered to study law in a law office, which was a common practice at the time. She studied with lawyer Damon Young Kilgore, Esq. The two had met while Burnham was teaching in Madison and Kilgore was the superintendent of public schools. Kilgore had subsequently moved to Philadelphia and started a legal practice.

On October 10, 1871, Burnham attempted to vote in an election in Philadelphia. Election officials rejected her ballot on the grounds that women did not have the right to vote. Burnham appealed the decision to the county court, which ruled against her. Burnham appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which heard her case in 1873. "It is not simply whether I shall be protected in the exercise of my inalienable right and duty of self-government," she argued to the court, "but whether a government, the mere agent of the people...can deny to any portion of its intelligent, adult citizens participation therein and still hold them amenable to its laws." Burnham noted that under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution and under the Pennsylvania Constitution "freemen" had the right to vote. She argued that the word was synonymous with "citizen," so she had the right to vote. The court rejected her argument. In 1874, as a delegate from the International Workingmen's Association, Burnham addressed the Pennsylvania constitutional convention on citizens' rights to vote. At the convention, delegates changed the qualifications for voters from freemen to "every white male citizen."

Burnham continued her work on voting rights issues, serving on the advisory committee and as a vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. At least twice she represented Pennsylvania and spoke at national suffrage conventions. The New York Herald described her as "containing within herself talent enough to run a sewing machine or a law college" and that she provided the conventioneers with a "perfect mine of information on law." According to a newspaper account of the 1875 convention in Washington D.C., Burnham asserted that "the legislators stand between woman and God, and that if woman attempts to maintain the rights God gave her, she is prevented by the mandate of man. In this country men are the legislators, judges, &c., therefore the Government is despotic. Woman is held in slavery, and can do nothing more than what man permits."

In 1872, having completed her required course of legal study, Burnham went before Pennsylvania's Board of Bar Examiners, who refused to administer the exam, stating that there was no precedent for women being admitted to the state bar. She tried again to take the bar exam in 1873 and 1874 and was rejected.

Carrie Burnham and Damon Kilgore (1827-1888) married in 1876. The couple signed a prenuptial agreement that aimed to eliminate the legal barriers imposed against married women in the laws of Pennsylvania and other states and territories, as well as in federal law. Upon marrying, Burnham stopped using her middle name, Sylvester, and went by Carrie Burnham Kilgore. The couple had two daughters, Carrie, born in 1877, and Fanny, born in 1880.

In 1881, Burnham again applied to the University of Pennsylvania's law school and was accepted. She graduated in 1883 at the age of 45, becoming the law school's first woman graduate and the first woman in the United States to graduate from a three-year law program.

Upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Carrie Burnham Kilgore won admission to the Orphan's Court of Philadelphia. But judges barred her from arguing cases before other state courts. National newspapers covered her several years' struggle to win admission to practice before Pennsylvania's four common pleas courts. In 1884, one of the courts accepted her application, but the other three rejected her petitions. Then in 1885, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law allowing women to practice before the state supreme court. The following year, Carrie Burnham Kilgore won admittance to practice before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which thereby gave her the right to practice before all the state's common pleas courts. In 1886, she was appointed master in chancery, the first woman to serve as an officer in a state judiciary. In 1890, she became the fourth woman ever admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. During her legal career, Kilgore's caseload included probate claims, patent infringement cases, and contract disputes.

In 1892, the University of Pennsylvania's alumni association invited Kilgore to attend its annual banquet. The invitation was made in error; all the other invitees were men. When the men complained that they did not want to socialize with a woman, Kilgore's invitation was revoked.

Kilgore suggested in 1901 that only women should be allowed to serve as judges in Juvenile Court. "Many of the children are left solely to the care of their mothers," she said. "If the judge were a woman it would tend to increase their respect for their mothers and thus strengthen the latter's influence with their families."

Kilgore developed an interest in hot-air ballooning. In June 1908, at the age of 70, she was aboard a flight organized by the Aeronautical Recreation Society in Philadelphia, when the balloon tore at an altitude of 3,000 feet. The balloon grazed several rooftops before landing in Philadelphia's Schuylkill River. Kilgore and the other four people aboard were uninjured. "I am not afraid to go again," Kilgore said afterwards. "My regrets are that this trip was spoiled by the accident."

Kilgore died of cancer in 1909 at the home of her son-in-law in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. She is buried in Craftsbury, Vermont.


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