Esther Burnam Bennett was born on July 19, 1877 in Richmond, KY, second child and first daughter of Anthony Rollins (A.R.) and Margaret (Sommers) Burnam. From a prominent Richmond family, A. R. Burnam followed in his father, Major C.F. Burnam’s footsteps, becoming a lawyer, judge, and legislator, taking over his father’s seat in the Kentucky Senate in 1908. Margaret Sommers, while born in Illinois, had deep Kentucky roots dating back to before the Revolutionary War. An active member of the community, Margaret was well-known in Richmond for her involvement in literary and art organizations, hosting regular meetings of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Esther appears to have been named after her maternal grandmother, Esther Sommers, who lived with the family when Esther was a child. The family would grow to include six more children: George, Anthony Jr., Lucia, Sarah, Margaret, and Paul.
Esther lived in Richmond most of her life, with two exceptions. When her father served as justice to the Kentucky Court of Appeals between 1897 and 1905, the family lived in Frankfort. Prior to that, in 1895 and 1896 she attended school in Colorado Springs, CO. Little else is known about Esther’s formal education, but she did finish high school and took Miss Helen Brown’s elocution class in 1899, where she gave recitation on “The Irish school master.”
As a young adult, Esther traveled with her family across the United States, to New Haven and Washington, D.C. with her grandmother, great aunt, and cousin in 1890, to Washington, D.C. and again in 1897 with her mother for the National Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) conference, to New Orleans in 1899, presumably to visit her brother George, to West Point in 1899 with her father and cousin to visit her brother Anthony Rollins Jr., to the “Eastern cities” with her father in 1900, and in 1904 she traveled to St. Louis with her younger brother Paul.
During the 1890s and the first decades of the 1900s, Richmond and Frankfort newspapers covered Esther’s social and civic activities widely, including speeches, dances, card parties, luncheons, fundraisers, and day trips to Lexington, Louisville, and Cincinnati. Society columns reported on Esther’s guests from surrounding communities including Versailles, Covington, and Woodford County, and out of state from St. Louis and Baltimore. Importantly, these papers also documented her involvement with various clubs and societies, including the talk she gave to the women’s club on the “Ethnography of Russia” in 1909.
As early as 1902, Esther is listed in the newspaper as a member of the Madison County Equal Rights Association and she is reported to have attended the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) and local ERA meetings with her mother and other family members even earlier in the 1890s. For instance, on February 6, 1904, Esther and her mother attended a talk given by Laura Clay in Frankfort in which Clay spoke on the importance of legislation on guardianship and school suffrage.
On February 8, 1910, Esther married Warfield Clay Bennett, Laura Clay’s nephew. At the time of their marriage, Warfield was a member of the Kentucky bar association and also oversaw the running of the family farm. He would go on to serve as a U.S. Commissioner. Writing about the couple’s plans to marry, Warfield told his aunt, “And, of course, you know her well…Think I am to get the very finest girl in the world and we expect to be very happy.” Esther may have been acquainted with Warfield’s aunt because of her involvement with the Madison Equal Rights Association. Or, the women may have known each other because of their overlapping social circles.
Following their marriage, Esther lived with her husband in the Bennett home, headed by mother-in-law, Sarah (Sallie) Clay Bennett, along with her sister-in-law Helen Bennett. Sarah Clay Bennett is listed as head of the household for the entire period that Warfield and Esther lived with her until her death in 1935. Esther and Warfield had two children; a daughter, Esther Sommers, born in 1913 and a son, Warfield Jr., born in 1914. Just as her adolescence and young adulthood were covered by the local media, so too her social and family life following her marriage made it into the papers, giving us glimpses of her life in the 1910s and 1920s.
Members of both Esther Burnam and Warfield Bennett’s families played instrumental roles in women’s suffrage in Kentucky. Esther’s mother, Margaret, participated in the first meeting of the Madison County ERA in 1879, just two years after Esther’s birth. In 1880, Esther’s mother, father, and future mother-in-law were among the dozens of Richmond women and men listed supporting suffrage for women. James Bennett, her husband’s father, was called a “charter member” of the Madison County ERA when he passed away in 1908.
Her mother served on the KERA Resolutions committee in 1890 and served on the local Credentials committee in 1908. She would go on to serve as one of the Vice Presidents of the Madison County ERA in 1914 when her daughter was President. In addition, Esther’s aunt on her father’s side, Miss Lucia Burnam participated in the movement for suffrage.
Esther’s mother-in-law, Sarah (Sallie) Clay Bennett, a founding member of the Madison County ERA, acted as President for the majority of the early years of the local chapter, attending or serving as alternate delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) conference more than a dozen times between 1890 and 1915. Sallie Bennett’s sister, Laura Clay, perhaps the most famous advocate for suffrage from KY, served as President of KERA for over two decades.
Esther served as Treasurer of KERA in 1912 and 1913. As Treasurer, Esther was responsible for keeping a record of receipts and disbursements and presenting a report at the KERA Annual Meeting. In 1912, she was also delegate to the NAWSA meeting in Philadelphia, PA and a member of the Credentials committee, whose job it was to certify and approve nominations for convention delegates and candidates for office.
During the time Esther took on the role of Treasurer in KERA, the organization was focused on lobbying legislators, working with existing women’s clubs, directing publicity campaigns in newspapers, promoting suffrage at county fairs and local events, and advocating for women’s education. KERA was also in the process of changing its operating procedures after almost 25 years in existence. Some terms for positions, such as President, Treasurer, and Recording Secretary were lengthened to two or three years, while term limits were imposed so that no officer served back-to-back terms. Bennett’s predecessor, Isabelle Shepard, had been treasurer for over two decades, stepping down when she moved to Texas. This would have been a pivotal and important time to be an officer in KERA as old and new leadership were debating strategies for advancing equal rights.
Esther’s leadership in KERA extended to the Madison County ERA, one of the most active local associations in the state. In 1914, Esther served as President of the Madison County ERA. During the years of Esther’s involvement with the Madison County ERA, the organization focused on expanding membership, including canvassing Richmond neighborhoods, distributing literature and fundraising; liaising to the local papers to ensure they covered suffrage news; contributing to state and national suffrage activities; writing letters to elected officials; sponsoring a speech contest at the Normal School with a $10 reward; and displaying signs in support of suffrage. Sallie Bennett reported in 1912 that one such sign, placed on the speaker’s stand at the County Courthouse read: “Women now vote at all elections on the same terms as men in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, and California. Why not Kentucky?” Other notable activities of the Madison ERA chapter included the creation of a Suffrage Garden in 1917. Esther, her mother, mother-in-law, and aunt were among the women who worked alongside hired laborers to plant potatoes to assist the war effort.
Also, during this time, her father Judge A. R. Burnam represented the 29th district in the state Senate. This is noteworthy in part because Esther engaged with family members (either her brother or her father), who had legal expertise to discuss the implications of proposed national legislation on rights granted under the state constitution, suggesting that she was comfortable using her family connections as a political strategy for suffrage.
Esther remained committed to equal rights, even following the passage of the 19th amendment. In April 1921, she spoke to the Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) on the effects of suffrage on public education. She also remained active in other aspects of Richmond community life. In 1924 she became the first chairperson of the new Madison County library board, a project of the Richmond Women’s Club, made possible by a gift from Sarah Bennett’s estate.
Esther Burnam Bennett died in August 1952 in Richmond from breast cancer. While her obituary did not mention her work on behalf of women’s suffrage, it highlighted her role as past President of the Richmond Women’s Club. Warfield died five years later, in 1957.
Both the Burnams and the Bennetts left legacies in Madison County and Kentucky, in the organizations they helped to found, the legislation they helped to pass, and the buildings they constructed. In 1920, because of his role in bringing one of the state Normal Schools to Richmond, Eastern Kentucky University named a women’s dormitory in honor of Esther’s father. In 1968, Esther and Warfield’s son and daughter donated White Hall, the home of Cassius Clay, to the state of Kentucky. Esther Burnam Bennett contributed to this legacy by her work and leadership in KERA and the Madison County ERA, and her advocacy for women in Kentucky and the United States.
Thank you to the Archives staff at Eastern Kentucky University, particularly Jenny Holly and the University of Kentucky for your guidance and expertise.
Richmond Daily Register
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