2020, Emily Burton Ketcham, Libby VanderPloeg

Emily Burton Ketcham

By Jo Ellyn Clarey

Life Dates: b. July 16 1838, d. January 12, 1907

Full Name: Emily Burton Ketcham

Birthplace: Grand Rapids, MI

Tags: Suffrage

Today we recognize the parading white dresses and purple-gold-and-white sashes of the American suffrage movement during the 1910s; but we know very little about the 19th-century trail blazers who set the later spectacles in motion. Among them was early and ardent Michigan suffragist Emily Burton Ketcham. Born in 1838 Grand Rapids under a Michigan constitution allowing only “white” and “civilized” Indian males to vote, Ketcham began to work in earnest in 1873 to strike gender as a qualification for voting. During a statewide campaign Ketcham developed a lasting friendship with Susan B. Anthony who, in 1892 on one of her many trips to Michigan, stood in the receiving line at Ketcham’s 25th wedding anniversary.

Foremost among the founders of Grand Rapids suffrage groups, Ketcham was also an active member of the state association reorganized in 1884. For her tactical skills, she was elected its president four times during the 1890s. For her eloquence, she represented her organizations on legislative committees and served frequently as Michigan’s delegate to the executive council of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1894 by special invitation, Emily Burton Ketcham addressed the U.S. congressional Judiciary Committee: “I come here to represent a State whose honored Senator made the first speech in Congress in favor of enfranchising the wives and the mothers and sisters of the Nation.” With national suffrage leaders, Ketcham’s presence in Washington was recorded in a Matthew Brady studio photograph. But she was anything but staid. Wearing fashionable dusky rose to lobby the Michigan state legislature, Emily Burton Ketcham once confessed to a reporter that from the balcony she had wanted to aim a Gatling gun at representatives voting against women’s suffrage. In Chicago, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Ketcham spoke to acclaim in the Woman’s Building; and with Susan B. Anthony, she had a special invitation to attend Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Newspapers of the day reported their appearance at such an event on a Sunday as scandalous. Unapologetic, they reported having had a “rollicking good time.”

By 1899, on the strength of Ketcham’s organizational prowess, Susan B. Anthony brought the annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to Grand Rapids for only the third time it had ever met outside Washington, DC, and for the only time it ever met in Michigan.

Emily Burton Ketcham, 1894, Wikimedia Commons

Less than a year after Susan B. Anthony’s death in 1906, her long-time friend Emily Burton Ketcham also died before universal suffrage had been achieved. Claiming that her death at 68 was catastrophic, NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw eulogized Ketcham: “Her loss to the state is a great one, and there does not seem to be anybody to take her place. To my mind she was the greatest worker that Michigan ever produced.” Nationwide, from Oregon to Massachusetts, tributes poured in.

For over thirty years Emily Burton Ketcham was instrumental in suffrage and reform movements on every stage–local, state, and national. Women’s suffrage simply would not have been achieved in 1920 except for the 72-year-long fight by women like Ketcham, who pioneered women’s visibility and voices on public stages. Today, we are still recovering the memory of women we have lost: foremothers, like this woman.

In an era long before smart phones and social media, women activists like Emily Burton Ketcham spent long hours at their desks, communicating and coordinating their great business among themselves, as well as recruiting visits by famous national and international crusaders.

Less than one month before Ketcham’s death in January 1906, she wrote a letter to British radical Christabel Pankhurst: “The report which comes to America of your fearless devotion to principle, the consequent stirring events in parliament, and the underserved suffering of reputable and honored English women who asked only for what President Theodore Roosevelt calls a ‘square deal’ has touched our sympathy, awakened our admiration for your courage and thrilled us with the possibilities of a common cause.”


This biography can also be found in the March 2020 issue of the Grand Rapids Women’s LifeStyle magazine.

Emily Burton Ketcham, FindAGrave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/106323685/emily-ketcham.