Emma Dolfinger (1881-1927) Louisville Suffragist and Public Health Advocate

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Emma Dolfinger was born in in 1881 in Louisville, Kentucky, to a family who descended from German immigrants. Both of her grandparents were born in Germany: Jacob Dolfinger in Württemburg around 1820 and Anna Pfingst in Hesse-Cassel around 1829.  When he emigrated to Louisville, Jacob Dolfinger, who was trained as a jeweler, first worked in partnership with the silversmith Henry Hudson.  In 1863 Jacob Dolfinger founded Dolfinger’s, a shop that imported European crystal and china to Louisville. Edward Dolfinger, Emma’s father, was born in Kentucky around 1854 and inherited the business; Emma’s mother, Sophia Dolfinger, was also born in Kentucky of parents who were emigrants from Germany.

As members of a well-to-do family, Emma and her sister Edna had educational opportunities of a kind that few girls of this era enjoyed.  At the age of seven, Emma Dolfinger attended Heywood Academy, where she played the role of a tulip in a pageant about flowers.  By 1899, she was chosen to read an essay at the commencement ceremony of Girls’ High School.  Emma Dolfinger went on to receive a B.A degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago and an M.A. from Columbia Teachers College.  In 1905 she returned to Louisville and joined the faculty of Girls’ High School, where she quickly rose to be the head of the science department. By 1917, she was the supervisor of all science instruction in the Louisville public schools.

Like many other privileged young women, both single and married, Dolfinger participated in several civic organizations. In 1908 she was admitted to the Women’s Club of Louisville—an organization that supported social reform in many areas.  In the following year she  lectured at the Women’s Club on “Some Causes of the Disintegration of the Family, with Suggested Remedies,” and was appointed by Mayor Grinstead of Louisville to the Tenement House Commission, a committee that gathered information about urban living conditions.

Dolfinger soon put her scientific training in the service of civic betterment. During the first years of the twentieth century, diseases caused by impure water and contaminated food supply threatened urban populations. By 1910, Dolfinger had helped to found the Highland Civic League, which declared its intention to “make war on all grocerymen, dairymen and butchers who do not comply with the laws of sanitation.” In that same year, she presented another lecture to the Woman’s Club of Louisville, this time on “Water Supply and Sewage Disposal.” Dolfinger was a progressive thinker who was open to political ideas that most of her contemporaries considered radical. In 1912 she lectured to the Woman’s Club on “Actual Accomplishments of Socialism: Germany.”

Within and outside the school system, Dolfinger advocated educating young people about health, and did not shrink from controversial issues. In 1913, she joined a group of educators and physicians at a conference on school sex education held at the Y.M.C.A. Dr. John J. Trawick, the president of the Kentucky Society for Social Hygiene, warned that sexual immorality was increasing, partly because many mothers were unable or unwilling to discuss reproduction and sexual behavior with their children. Did the teacher not have “great power in molding the pupil?” he asked.  Dolfinger and her colleague Pauline Witherspoon were probably concerned to protect teachers from a controversial task for which they had no training. Such a sensitive mission, they protested, could not be left to the teacher alone. “Such instruction in a large class is out of the question.” They suggested, rather, that “clubs, meetings, and the press” could provide mothers with the information they needed to teach their children about sex.  If children had some basic information, Dolfinger added, high school biology courses could build on this foundation.

Like many of her colleagues in the suffrage movement, Dolfinger probably supported women’s right to vote as a means to reforming society as a whole as well as raising the status of women. In 1911 she was chosen by the Louisville Woman Suffrage Association (LWSA) as a delegate to the annual convention of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), to be held in Louisville in the same year. The convention was a gala affair: the delegates wore white and gold buttons decorated with six stars, and received a warm welcome as they entered the city. Among the speakers were M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr College and a noted advocate of women’s education; Anna Howard Shaw, the president of NAWSA; and Jane Addams, who as the founder of Hull House in Chicago, a so-called settlement house where volunteers provided social services to the poor and recent immigrants, was among the nation’s most admired women.  The most charismatic of all the speakers, however, was Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragettes. She urged American women to use militant tactics, which in Britain included breaking windows, destroying property, disrupting meetings, and organizing massive demonstrations, to advance the suffrage cause.  The LWSA entertained delegates at a tea party at the Woman’s Club.

As it gained momentum, the suffrage movement was divided by disputes over political alliances and tactics.  The NAWSA favored political non-partisanship, and when the United States entered the First World War in 1917 its leaders urged suffragists to show patriotism by supporting the war effort.  Another group that first called itself the Congressional Union and later the National Woman’s Party (NWP), however, developed more partisan tactics.  The NWP urged women in states where they already had the right to vote to oppose the Democratic Party, which as yet had not endorsed a constitutional amendment granting suffrage to all American women.  In 1917 members of the NWP picketed the White House, publicly accusing President Woodrow Wilson of hypocrisy for promoting democracy in Europe but denying it at home.  The LWSA, along with most mainstream suffrage organizations, dissociated itself from these actions, which most members considered unpatriotic and unacceptably radical.

Emma Dolfinger, however, supported the NWP and its militant tactics.  In August of 1917, she joined a group of Louisville suffragists at a meeting headed by the national NWP organizer Doris Stevens at Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel.    As Stevens spoke about her experiences as a White House picket, a telegram arrived from Washington announcing that a group of pickets had been arrested and sentenced to prison terms of thirty days.  “Is there no one who will protest against such an outrage against liberty and democracy?” Stevens asked, and the audience voted to send a resolution to President Wilson protesting the arrest.  Furthermore, several women, including Dolfinger, volunteered to establish a permanent committee to look after the interests of the NWP in Kentucky.   Two members of the group at the Seelbach, Edith Callahan and Cornelia Beach, traveled to Washington to assist with the picketing.

Meanwhile Dolfinger gained both local and national visibility as a public health activist.  To give only a few examples: in 1920 she gave a lecture to the Woman’s Club on “New Ways of Teaching Health to Children” and organized a “sound teeth week” as part of a ten weeks’ public health campaign; in 1921 she was part of a team who weighed and measured every child who visited a booth set up by the state and city boards of health at the Kentucky State Fair. In 1922 she took a two-year leave of absence from her teaching job to work in New York with the Child Health Organization of America, and in 1924 she settled permanently in New York as the director of the organization, now renamed the American Child Health Association after a merger with the Child Hygiene Association. Her main responsibility was to assist educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities, to develop health education programs.

Dolfinger died at her home in Long Island in 1927.  In her memory, a group of her colleagues raised a memorial fund that supported the publication of a Health Horizons, a source book on health intended for teachers to use.  “So rich was her legacy of achievement,” read the dedication, “that a group of Emma Dolfinger’s friends, both personal and professional, felt that her ideals of service to the teachers of the country should be perpetuated.  To this end, and in the sincere hope that it will continue and extend the guiding inspiration of Emma Dolfinger, this memorial volume has been prepared.” In 1928, the Montgomery Street School in Louisville was renamed the Dolfinger School in her memory.


Louisville Courier-Journal

Louisville Herald

Jean Broadhurst and Marion O. Lerrigo, Health Horizons: Contributions to Health Teaching from History and Science (New York: Newark Silver, Burdett and Company, 1931).

“Emma Dolfinger,” in A Dictionary of Prominent Women of Louisville and Kentucky, edited by  Bess A. Ray (Louisville: The Louisville Free Public Library, 1940), 79-80.

Carol Guethlein, “Women in Louisville: Moving Toward Equal Rights,” The Filson Club History Quarterly, 55, no. 2  (April, 1981): 151-178.

This biosketch was prepared by Ann Taylor Allen, Professor Emerita at the University of Louisville, as part of the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project. For more biosketches of Kentucky's activists for the right to vote during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see the full list at https://networks.h-net.org/node/2289/pages/135668/biographical-sketches