Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920

Biography of Sarah Burger Stearns, 1836-1904

By Lynn Cole, writer, Florence, Italy.

Founder and first President of Minnesota Women's Suffrage Association (MWSA).

Sarah Burger Stearns was born November 30, 1836 in New York City. Her parents relocated to Ann Arbor in 1845. The Burger Family moved a third time to Cleveland where Sarah attended high school. On February 18, 1863, she married Ozora Pierson Stearns (1831-1896) in Michigan where they met in college. Soon after, they moved to Minnesota where they had four children; Susan M. (1867-1953), Victor Alanzo (1870-1942), Parlier (who died shortly after birth in 1868) and Stella Burger (1872-1948). In 1895, they moved to San Diego, CA due to Mr. Stearns' health. He died there in 1896. She returned to Duluth, where she carried out her philanthropy and suffrage work until her death in 1904.

Sarah Burger Stearns was a reformer, philanthropist and a key figure in the suffragist movement. At the age of 16, she attended her first suffragist meeting in Ohio where leading women in the movement spoke of education among other enfranchisements such as Lucy Stone and Lucretia Mott. This was a defining moment for Stearns. In June 1858, she and a group of young women applied to the University of Michigan as the first females to petition for admission. The university Regents rejected all of their applications. After multiple rejections to the University of Michigan, Stearns settled for a degree at State Normal School.

During her university studies, she met her husband, Ozora Pierson Stearns, who was studying law at Michigan University. He himself advocated for justice for women and supported Stearns in all her endeavors. Soon after their marriage, Ozora enlisted in the Union Army moving up in ranks to become Colonel of the 39th United States Colored Infantry. Sarah enlisted in the North's Sanitary Commission and lectured at the Soldiers' Aid Society on the “Wrongs of Women and Their Redress,” and taught Freedmen where her husband was stationed.

In 1866, the Stearns' moved to Rochester, Minnesota where she started the Suffrage Society. She had a fondness for lectures and writing to the press about topics which included Woman and Home and Women and The Republic. When they moved to Duluth in 1872, she promptly started another group named the Duluth Woman Suffrage Circle. In 1867, she, along with her fellow circle members, strived to change the Minnesota state constitution by having the word ‘man' omitted, thereby allowing women the right to vote. It lost by one vote. In 1875, the chance arose again. Stearns, a writer and teacher, applied for the ballots to read “For the amendment to Article 7 of the constitution. Yes.” Her goal was to ensure that the highest number would vote “... in favor of giving women a voice in the education of the children of the State, while all who were really opposed could scratch the “yes,” and substitute a “no.” The amendment passed and was the first legislative success for the suffrage movement in Minnesota. Stearns served as a school board member from 1881 to 1883.  Between 1883 to 1885 she founded the Ladies' Relief Society and the Women and Children's' Home Society.

The Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) was formed in Hastings in 1881 to bring together all of the women's groups in the state. Sarah Burger Stearns was its first president serving three years.  MWSA was also part of the National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA), which, in 1890, merged into the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Through these associations, she cultivated a relationship with Susan B. Anthony. Anthony respected Stearns' political acumen and sought her advice on many occasions, as is evidenced by their letters.

In 1899, while living in California, Sarah Burger Stearns found herself at the creation of another society-the newly resurrected Woman Suffrage League. They decided to revive the club after having been defunct for several years and elected Stearns as chairperson of the league. She returned to Duluth shortly after and remained in service of the movement as well as undertaking philanthropic endeavors until her death in 1904.


Stuhler, Barbara, Organizing for the vote: Leaders of Minnesota's Woman Suffrage Movement, 292-95.

Gordon, Ann D., et al., editors. “11 March 1890: SBA to Sarah Burger Stearns.” The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: Their Place Inside the Body-Politic, 1887 to 1895, Rutgers University Press, 2009, pp. 269–274. JSTOR.

Stearns, Sarah B. To the dear women opposed to woman suffrage: an open letter / [Sarah B. Stearns]. [New York: National-American Woman Suffrage Association, 1894?] [4];

HISTORY OF WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE Trilogy – Part 2: The Trailblazing Documentation on Women's Enfranchisement in USA, Great Britain & Other Parts of the World ... Speeches, Court

Click here for another sketch of Sarah Burger Stearns.

back to top