Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Emma Jane Kelley McVicker, 1846-1916
By Dr. Kathryn Mackay, Professor of History and Public History Program Director, Weber State University, Ogden, Utah.
Educator, civic and community leader.
Secretary, Utah Federation of Women's Clubs.
Member, Board of Regents, University of Utah.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
President, the Utah Teachers' Association.
Emma Jane Kelley McVicker was born in Jefferson County, New York. She earned a teacher's certificate from the Chicago Musical College and came in 1880 to Utah Territory to teach at the Collegiate Institute which had been founded as a prep school under the supervision of the First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City. The school changed its name to Westminster College in 1902.
Kelley was among the many women teachers who between 1877 and 1890 established thirty-seven schools in Utah, most of them funded by women's missionary societies. The strategy was part of a tactic by several Protestant missionaries to confront the "Mormon Menace" by providing free, quality education as an attractive alternative to the mostly inadequate territorial schools controlled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
It was as an educator that Kelley, later McVicker after she married assayer John McVicker (1836-1907) in 1886, became involved in issues of public policies. In 1883, she served as the first president of the Children's Service Society of Utah, originally known as the Orphan's Home and Day Nursery Association. A decade later (1891), she became president of the Free Kindergarten Association and established that year a Woman's Christian Temperance Union kindergarten in Salt Lake City which served as a charitable day nursery for the children of working mothers. (The association was incorporated as Neighborhood House in 1911.) In 1896, McVicker worked at the state constitutional convention to secure provisions for kindergarten in the public-school system.
The Free Kindergarten Association was part of nationwide efforts by women to improve life in the cities after the example of Jane Addams' Hull House. Like that settlement house, the Association added other services, including a milk station, a playground, bathrooms for free baths, an employment agency for women, classes for recent immigrants, and public lectures and music performances.
McVicker participated in many organizations which involved non-LDS women. Cleofan was formed in 1892 with the intentions of studying art, literature, and history. She also belonged to the Utah Women's Press Club and the Ladies' Literary Club. In 1893, the Utah Federation of Women's Clubs was formed. It worked under the General Federation, which had been established in New York in 1890, to promote libraries, detention homes for juvenile girls, playground construction, and other "city-beautiful" projects. McVicker became secretary of the Federation in 1894.
However, McVicker also joined with LDS women in promoting suffrage and positive images of Utah women. She contributed the article "The History of Presbyterian Work in Utah" to the The World's Fair Ecclesiastical History of Utah, one of three books compiled and edited by LDS suffrage leaders Emmeline B. Wells and Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball. The three texts were meant to highlight the cultural and religious contributions of Utah women at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. In 1895, McVicker helped host the visit to Utah by national suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw.
By 1896, McVicker had been appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of Utah along with Rebecca E. Little. Both women served on the "Kindergarten" and "Special" committees. McVicker continued as a regent until 1905, earning a degree in 1900 from the university. She worked on another degree - a Master of Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Her 1903 paper was on "Some Saline and Thermal Algae in the Vicinity of the Great Salt Lake."
In late 1900, McVicker was appointed State Superintendent of Public Instruction by Utah Governor Heber M. Wells, to fill a 3-month end-of-term vacancy (from October 8, 1900 until January 6, 1901) caused by the death of Dr. John R. Park, making her the first woman named to a high post in Utah State government. She was thereafter elected president of the Utah Teachers' Association.
After her husband's death, McVicker settled in Oakland, California. However, she is buried next to John in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Salt Lake City. Her will reflects her continued dedication to bettering the lives of women. She left $1000 to the Regents of the University of California to be called the "McVicker Loan Fund" - the money to be used "as loans to girl students working their way through the university - to be repaid when the girls earn salaries after graduation." She also left funds to support scholarships for Indian schools in California, missionary work in China, and to the YWCA of Oakland "to provide free bed for transient girls unable to pay for lodging."
Utah Probate Court, ThirdDistrict Court Probate Wills, 1869-1919. Available from: Ancestry.com. Utah, Wills and Probate Records, 1800-1985. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Accessed 3 September 2019.
Davies, George K. "A History of the Presbyterian Church in Utah," PhD dissertation. University of Pittsburgh, 1942.
Lubomudrow, Carol Ann. "A Woman State School Superintendent: Whatever Happened to Mrs. McVicker?" Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol 49, no. 3 (Summer 1981): 254-261.
Stone, Eileen Hallet, "Living History: Suffrage Carried Emma J. McVicker, an Early Champion for Education, into office as State Superintendent." The Salt Lake Tribune, 4 April 2016.