Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Sara S. Gilson, 1876-1949
By Jamie Tanzer, undergraduate student
Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Chairman of the Organization Committee of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, First Vice President of the Massachusetts State Federation of Women's Clubs
Sara Gilson was born Sara Sumner Emery on November 14, 1876 in New Brunswick, Canada to parents William Emery of England and Leila S. Comstock Emery of Maine. The Emery family moved to Massachusetts in 1878. Sra Gilson attended Wellesley College and graduated in 1898, then taught at Wellesley from 1899 to 1904 before marrying Claude U. Gilson on July 6, 1904. She and Claude then moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she gave birth to two children; Sumner Emery (1905), who died in infancy, and Spafford Franklin, born November 18, 1907 and passed away two days later. The Wilsons lived in New Jersey from about 1910-1912 before returning to Massachusetts permanently. Claude Wilson died on December 27, 1916 of influenza but Sara continued to support herself as a lecturer.
Starting around 1910, Sara Gilson became increasingly involved in Unitarian organizations and Women's Clubs and was particularly passionate about women's suffrage. When she returned to Massachusetts, she joined the Massachusetts State Federation of Women's Clubs (MSFWC) and became their first vice president. In 1915, she became chairman of the Organization Committee of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA), which at the time had about 58,000 members. Her involvement in the State Federation was actually seen as a negative by many in the MWSA, since the Federation was divided on the issue of suffrage. She spoke in favor of suffrage at the MSFWC convention to decide whether to endorse suffrage, which was held in Marion, Massachusetts in June, 1915 and she likely played a role in the resulting vote of 203-99 in favor of endorsing suffrage. She went on to work on many projects within the MWSA, ranging from organizing a county fair to handling communication with other suffrage organizations to helping with MWSA's publicity efforts. The MWSA tried to publicize its activities both to members through a bi-weekly bulletin, as well as to the broader public by sometimes sending resolutions to newspapers, and Sara Gilson was involved with both of these types of publicity.
She was likely well respected in the organization as she not only was often elected to lead initiatives or act as a delegate at national events, but was given additional responsibilities. For example, she was elected as one of the delegates to represent Massachusetts at the Annual Convention for suffrage in 1916 (which was held on September 8 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was attended by President Woodrow Wilson) and the MWSA board voted that she appoint the remaining delegates, giving her additional power in the context of this important event.
After work as a suffragist, Sara Gilson also traveled around the U.S. and intercontinentally in the 1920s and 1930s. She visited places including San Francisco, Hawaii, Jamaica, Bermuda, Guatemala, France, England, Germany, and Italy. This may have been related to her job at the time, which she described for a census taker as a lecturer on international affairs. She passed away in 1949 in Rockport, Massachusetts.
"'A rash and dreadful act for a woman': The 1915 Woman Suffrage Parade in Boston," Massachusetts Historical Society website.
Woodrow Wilson, "Address at the Suffrage Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey," September 8, 1916. Online by Gerhard, Peter S. and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Accessed online at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=65395.
"Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association minutes of executive board." Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from the Schlesinger Library: Voting Rights, National Politics, and Reproductive Rights. Jan 01, 1916 - Dec 31, 1916. Accessed online at http://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=002690-028-0188.
"Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association organizational records," Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from the Schlesinger Library: Voting Rights, National Politics, and Reproductive Rights. Jan 01, 1916 - Dec 31, 1916. Accessed online at http://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q-002690-040-0151.
Mary Hutcheson Page scrapbook of correspondence, clippings, photographs, and other items. Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from the Schlesinger Library: Voting Rights, National Politics, and Reproductive Rights. Accessed online at http://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=002690-029-0218.
Sara S Gilson, "United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925," at https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QKDX-PVVS.
Year: 1940 ; Census Place: Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts ; Roll: T627_1660 ; Page: 62A ; Enumeration District: 15-118 Ancestry Library Travel Records
New York, New York City Municipal Deaths. 1795-1949, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2WF5-6PT : 20 March 2015), Spafford Franklin Gilson, 20 Nov 1907; citing Death, Brooklyn, Kings, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,324,156. (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2WF5-6PT)
New York, New York City Births, 1846-0909, databased, FamilySearch, at https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2WZ7-NH1, Spafford Franklin Gilson, 18 Nov 1907; citing Manhattan, New York, NY, United States, reference 34400 New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,992,850.
"New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909," database, at FamilySearch, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2WCQ-F94. 20 March 2015, Sumner Emery Gilson, 04 Sep 1905; citing Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, reference 22434 New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,991,794.