Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Emma J. Nelson, 1847-1916

By Debra Neubert, Historian

Vermont Woman's Suffrage Association: Charter Member, Treasurer

Emma Jane Bundy was born in 1847 in Burke, Caledonia, County, Vermont. Both of her parents were natives of Burke. Willard Bundy made a living as a farmer, and Octavia D. Fyler Bundy is listed as "keeping house." On February 3, 1869, Emma married Samuel A. Nelson (1834-1903), who was also from Burke, and perhaps someone she grew up with. Census records list his occupation as merchant, and Emma as keeping house. They would go on to have two children, Sarah Delphine and Willard B. Nelson.

Women's suffrage was much more common in western states. After the Civil War, Vermont remained agrarian, and didn't industrialize in the same way as other states and was thus relatively "backwards" on women's rights issues. The Vermont suffrage movement drew most of its ideas from national figures in Boston and other northeastern cities. Suffragists from those cities came to visit and recruit in Vermont. The Vermont newspapers were merciless in mocking them, and Vermont men stood by their belief that "their women" didn't want the vote. It is likely that Emma learned about the suffrage movement through newspapers or attending suffrage meetings. The Vermont Woman's Suffrage Association was organized in 1884 and focused its efforts on persuading the state legislature to act on women#x200f'#x200fs political rights. It also sent representatives to the National American Woman Suffrage Association meetings, and later the Congressional Union for Women#x200f'#x200fs Suffrage, which pushed for suffrage action at the federal level. Annual statewide conventions were held from 1884 through 1920, meeting in a different Vermont community each year. It is through the published reports of those meetings that we learn of Emma's involvement in suffrage.

Records confirm that Emma was active in the suffrage movement at least from 1884 to 1903. It is significant to note that she was one of the charter members of the Association and its first treasurer. She held that position until 1888, when she stepped down and served as a local committee member in St. Johnsbury. During the years between 1884 and 1888, meeting minutes show Emma as a very involved and valued member. At the first meeting, she served on the Committee of Resolutions, recruited 4 new members, and presented the Treasury report. In 1887, at the third annual meeting, she served with two other women on the committee to elect a new president. Mr. C. W. Wyman, who had served as President for two years, declined reelection, and suggested that a lady be elected to fill this office for the coming year. It is recorded that at least twice Emma donated $5.00 to the cause and was praised as an example of selflessness. At the seventh meeting in 1893, she was asked to offer a few brief remarks; no topic is recorded. She also led the afternoon devotional by reading Isaiah 42, and offering some thoughts on the passage. Her penultimate mention in the published annual reports was at the ninth annual meeting in 1893.

The 1900 and 1910 censuses show her living in Boston, Ward 22, and she was mentioned in the 1903 annual suffrage meeting report, which stated that Mrs. Emma J. Nelson represented Vermont at the annual meeting of the New England W.S.A., held in Boston, May 29, 1902. Research did not bear any fruit on other activity once she moved to Massachusetts. Emma passed away on November 21, 1916, from chronic glomerulonephritis, a form of kidney disease. She is laid to rest at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston. She was 69 years old.


Minutes of the Annual Meetings of the Vermont Woman's Suffrage Association, 1884-1888, 1893, 1903

United States. Bureau of the Census. Population, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910

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