Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Nellie G. Burger, 1869-1957
By Haylee Pals and Noah Arevalo, undergraduate students at Northwest Missouri State University. Edited by Dr. Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University.
Nellie Burger was born Nelle Gilham Lemon in Saint Louis, Missouri, on July 27, 1869 to Charles J. Lemon and Irene C Jacobs. She married her husband, Charles A. Burger, in Roodhouse, Illinois, on September 1, 1886. Nellie and Charles lived the majority of their lives in Springfield, Missouri. Nellie is most well known for her work with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. She held many different positions within the organization, the most prominent being the president of the Missouri WCTU. She held the position for 34 years from 1913 to 1947, was well liked, and was consistently re-elected by an overwhelming majority.
Nellie traveled across Missouri, the United States, and even outside of the country giving speeches where she advocated for the temperance movement and women's suffrage. She was highly praised by newspapers on these travels. One in Kansas raved about her "charming personality and extraordinary intelligence." Perhaps the most enthusiastic review appeared in Illinois and said, "most beautifully does she blend sentiment and logic, and pathos and narratives, imagery, and common sense...flued and cultured, her manner modest, her voice melodious, her language elegant and fluent, her reasoning sound and convincing." She was particularly renowned on these trips for her orating skills.
Many of Nellie's speeches focused on women's suffrage. A core belief of the WCTU was the enfranchisement of women and that men and women were equal in the eyes of their Creator. As the president of the Missouri WCTU, she committed the organization's cooperation and resources to the suffrage movement in 1913. In doing this, she helped the Missouri Suffrage League gain 14,000 votes for their initiative petition. In 1919, Nellie was one of the few honored speakers at the Ratification Dinner in celebration of Missouri ratifying the 19th Amendment that granted women's suffrage. For her dedication, Nellie is featured on a suffrage plaque at the Missouri state capital that honors her and other women for their work for women's rights.
Following the passage of women's suffrage, Nellie continued her work supporting women's rights and temperance. In 1933, when the 21st Amendment passed, repealing prohibition, Nellie worked even harder for her temperance beliefs. She continued her career long into life, even after her husband, Charles, died in 1936. Nellie retired due to a heart condition in 1953, and she died a few years later in 1957. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union created the Nelle G. Burger Anniversary Fund to honor her. She spent her life making a difference for what she believed in and is remembered for the incredible work she accomplished.
- 1: Image of Nellie G. Burger. The Union Signal: A Journal of Social Welfare. National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1919.
- 2: Photograph of the 1913 Woman's Christian Temperance Union State Convention in Missouri, where Nellie Burger was first elected president. The State Historical Society of Missouri. Columbia, Missouri, October 2, 1913.
- 3: Image of Nellie G. Burger's gravestone in Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, Missouri. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/74684119/nelle-g-burger
Reports of Nellie Burger's work with the WCTU and her speeches appear in various newspapers across the country, including: Arkansas Democrat, Asbury Park Press, Belvidere Daily Republican, Burlington Clipper, Chattanooga Daily Times, Hartford Courant, Jefferson City Post-Tribune, La Plata Home Press, Moberly Monitor-Index, Oakland Tribune, Sedalia Weekly Democrat, Sikeston Standard, St. Joseph Gazette, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, The Cameron Sun, The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, The Decatur Daily, The Hutchinson News, The Marshfield Mail, The Pomona Republican, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Sedalia Democrat, The Springfield News-Leader, and Webb City Register (available on online archives and www.newspapers.com). The Missouri state capital displays a plaque for women's suffrage featuring Nellie. Additional information about Nellie Burger is available in A Brief History of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union : Outline Course of Study for Local Union by Katharine Lent Stevenson, "Burger, Nelle Gilham Lemon (1869-1957)" by Mary K. Dains on the Oxford University's American National Biographies website, National American Woman Suffrage Association's The History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922) [LINK], and "History of Woman Suffrage in Missouri," edited by Mary Semple Scott, Missouri Historical Review XIV:3-4 (April-July, 1920).