Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Reverend Mary Augusta Safford, 1851-1927

By Jake Stepansky, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

President, Iowa Association of Unitarian Churches; President, Iowa Equal Suffrage Association; President, Florida Equal Suffrage Association; Board of National Women's Suffrage Association.

Reverend Mary Augusta Safford was born near Quincy, Illinois on December 23, 1851 to Stephen Farrar Safford and Louisa (Hunt) Safford. She never married and had no children. She had one older brother: George Benjamin Safford. Mary A. Safford attended the University of Iowa in 1868, but left after one year due to health and family concerns. Safford died on October 25, 1927 at the age of 75 in Orlando, Florida. She was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Hamilton, Illinois.

Mary Safford was an influential member of the Unitarian church, serving for over thirty years as a minister at congregations in Illinois and Iowa. Safford's partnership with Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon, which began as a childhood friendship, quickly developed into a professional and religious one. In time, Unitarian reverend Oscar Clute would encourage the pair to found a church in their hometown of Hamilton, Illinois; they would later move on to work in ministries in Humboldt, Illinois and Sioux City, Iowa.

Safford was an outspoken advocate for the presence and representation of women in the clergy. Safford traveled to London in a pulpit exchange with Reverend Gertrude von Petzoid. The Des Moines Register reprinted an article from The Chronicle, a British newspaper, which indicated that "a woman in the pulpit has not been seen or heard by many people in London, and for that reason the sermon yesterday by the Reverend Mary Safford was curious and interesting." In a separate article, published in 1921, Safford acknowledged that "in the eighties I was an unprecedented peculiarity, and today the pastor of the historic London temple, England, is Miss Maude Roydon."

Safford's influence was particularly notable during her eleven-year tenure as the pastor of the Des Moines Unitarian Church. Safford was frequently cited and quoted in the Des Moines Register for her tireless work not only as a pastor, but as the president of several influential organizations campaigning for suffrage and equality. These included: the Iowa Association of Unitarian Churches; the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association, and the Florida Equal Suffrage Association. In a letter of obituary in the Register, Safford praised suffragist Hannah Miles Le Compte of Corydon, IA for "devotion to the ideal good which makes life grandly worth the living." Safford fought to support the election of government representatives who would support suffrage; she preferred to change public opinion through preaching and advocacy rather than by making herself an abundantly publicized and politicized figure in the public eye.

Biographer Sarah Oelberg noted that Safford "is credited with being the first woman to preach in a Jewish synagogue."


Clippings from the Des Moines Register
Mon, Nov 20, 1905
Sun, May 30, 1909
Fri, April 22, 1910
Mon, May 9, 1910
Fri, Dec 22, 1911
Thur, March 21, 1912
Sun, Nov 10, 1912

Emerson, D. M., Edwards, J., & Knox, H. (2000). Mary Augusta Safford. In Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936 (pp. 497-503) Retrieved March 6, 2017.

Johnson, A. L. "Reverend Mary Safford Was Pioneer Iowa Minister Back in Prairie Days." Des Moines (Iowa ) Register, July 17, 1921, p. 47.

"Mary Augusta Safford," The Annals of Iowa 16 (1928), p. 318. Available at:

Oelberg, Sarah. "Safford, Mary Augusta," The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 6 March 2017

SAFFORD, Mary Augusta, In Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915, ed. by John William Leonard. (New York: American Commonwealth Company, 1914). pp. 711 [LINK]

Safford, M. A., "Woman as Minister," The Women's Tribune, vol. X, no. 38 (2 September, 1893).

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