Emma Gunterman, a peace activist who fought for disadvantaged people as a respected legislative advocate, died Jan. 8 at 98, her family said.
A former domestic worker and farmworker, Mrs. Gunterman defied the image of Capitol lobbyists as well-heeled professionals peddling campaign contributions for influence. A native of the Netherlands, she spoke with a slight accent and arrived at legislative hearings on a bicycle that was her chief mode of transportation. She worked for little pay for groups that often struggled for funding, including California Rural Legal Assistance.
She made up for a lack of affluence and polish with a keen understanding of the political process and unwavering commitment to speaking out for children, seniors, consumers and low-income people.
“I really believe that the democratic, efficient and fair way to get equity is to have fair representation in the Legislature,” she said in 1983. “Anybody who knows what they’re talking about and is specific can have an influence and improve legislation.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Mrs. Gunterman devoted her life to peace and social justice causes. She emigrated to the United States with her mother, who marched for women’s right to vote. She met her husband, Joe, at a peace rally during World War II and accompanied him as a conscientious objector to work in Civilian Public Service camps in the Midwest, Oregon and California. She cut spinach and oranges in Tulare County and later worked as a domestic or in hospitals to help support their first child.
The family settled about 1950 in Gridley, where her husband milked cows and built their home while she made and sold puppets for speech therapy classes. Besides raising four children, she started a summer school for farmworkers’ children and organized a day care center and school breakfast program with help from student volunteers she recruited at California State University, Chico.
“That was before the War on Poverty,” she recalled in 1984.
After her husband became a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on Legislation, the family settled in Sacramento in 1967. Mrs. Gunterman worked as a lobbyist for the Association of California Consumers and started a newsletter, “On the Capitol Doorstep,” about state and federal legislation related to young children and education. She later worked for California Rural Legal Assistance as an expert on senior issues and helped write legislation on long-term care and in-home supportive services.
She volunteered in retirement as a math teacher at Fremont Adult School, Loaves & Fishes, and Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services. She planted fruits and vegetables in her backyard, cultivated native plants and opened herself to new interests.
“She picked up needlepoint,” her daughter Joan said. “She had no patience, but she would sit and do needlepoint that she was always giving to people.”
Emma Elizabeth Hartog was born Dec. 26, 1915, in Amsterdam to an American mother and a Dutch father, who died when she was in high school. She studied Greek and math on a scholarship and graduated from Smith College. She taught high school in New York, did graduate work at Columbia University and was a peace activist before moving to Los Angeles, where she met Joe Gunterman.
Mrs. Gunterman was active in the League of Women Voters. She was honored for her legislative advocacy by the Older Women’s League of Sacramento and a 1989 Sacramento History Center exhibit about women who made a difference in the community.
Lively and curious all her life, she began using a computer at 81 and wrote a math book for adults. She rode her bicycle on midtown streets until several years ago.
“She had a real passion for life and an interest in people,” her daughter said. “You’d go with her to the doctor, and she’d be interviewing the medical assistant taking her vital signs about where she was from and her family and life.”
Mrs. Gunterman was predeceased by her son Stan in 1976. Besides her husband of 71 years, she is survived by two daughters, Karen and Joan; a son, Tom; a sister, Myra Giese; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Services are pending. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to American Friends Service Committee, AFSC Development, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, PA 19102; or to the Friends Committee on Legislation of California, 1225 Eighth St., Suite 220, Sacramento, CA 95814.
Editor's note: This obituary originally misidentified Emma Gunterman's husband. His name is Joe Gunterman.