Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Sarah J. Eddy, 1851-1945

By Joanna M. Doherty, Principal Architectural Historian, Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission

Executive Committee Member, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; Chair of the RIWSA Legislative Committee; Artist; Painter of Susan B. Anthony Portraits

Sarah J. Eddy was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 9, 1851 to James Eddy and Eliza Francis Jackson Merriam Eddy. James Eddy (1806-1888) was a wealthy real estate investor and art dealer, who produced and sold reproduction engravings of masterworks. Eliza Eddy (1816-1881) was active in the abolition and suffrage movements; in her will, she stipulated that her residual estate be divided equally between Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. James and Eliza lived in Boston for several years after their marriage, then moved to Providence, Rhode Island in the 1860s.

Sarah J. Eddy studied painting and sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and at the Art Students' League of New York, but had returned to Providence by 1880, when the census showed her living in her parents' house, with her occupation listed as “Paints Pictures.” Eddy was active in the Providence Art Club, sitting on the Executive Committee and Jury of Admission, and exhibiting in at least five of the Club's annual shows in the 1880s. The 1887 show included one of two identical portraits that Eddy painted of Frederick Douglass in 1881-82, reportedly the only formal portrait for which Douglass ever sat. Eddy kept one copy, but gave it to W.E.B. DuBois in 1914, who later donated it to Fisk University. Eddy gave the other copy to Douglass; it is now in the collection of the National Park Service, which acquired Douglass's home in 1962.

By the 1890s, Eddy had become an accomplished photographer, regularly exhibiting her work in American and international shows. These included juried exhibitions in Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and salons in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Toronto and Chicago. Eddy's work was shown in two major international exhibitions in 1900. She was among 31 photographers included in an exhibition of American women photographers at the Paris Universal Exposition, organized by Frances Benjamin Johnston; it later traveled to St. Petersburg and Moscow. Eddy was also included in an exhibition titled the “New School of American Photography” in London, organized by Fred Holland Day. In addition to being shown extensively, Eddy's work was recognized by and featured in photographic journals of the period, such as the American Annual of Photography and Wilson's Photographic Magazine.

Like her mother, Sarah J. Eddy was committed to the cause of woman suffrage. She was a lifetime member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and was active at the local level. She served on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA) in 1886, during an unsuccessful attempt to pass a state constitutional amendment giving women the vote, and helped organize “parlor meetings” to persuade voters to support the amendment. Eddy was a delegate to the national suffrage conventions in 1904 and 1906, and served as the chair of the RIWSA Legislative Committee in 1905. At the RIWSA meeting held on June 22, 1905, she “presented each member present with a fine photograph of Miss Susan B. Anthony for which a hearty vote of thanks was given.” According to The History of Woman Suffrage, the work of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League, founded in 1908, “was at first largely carried on by an active group of philanthropic women” in the Bristol Ferry area of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where Eddy had built a house in the mid-1890s. These included Miss Cora Mitchell, who served as president, and her “friends and neighbors, among whom were Miss Sarah J. Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge and Mrs. Barton Ballou.” In the 1910s, Eddy hosted events at her home for the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, successor to the RIWSA. In 1918, according to an item in the Newport Mercury, she protested paying taxes in Portsmouth “without a voice in the affairs of the town.” When Rhode Island ratified the 19th amendment, in January 1920, a letter from Eddy was read at a celebratory dinner in Providence.

In 1901, Susan B. Anthony spent three weeks at Eddy's home in Portsmouth, spending each morning sitting for two portraits. Eddy donated one of the portraits to Bryn Mawr College in 1920. The other, which depicts Anthony receiving flowers from a group of children at her eightieth birthday celebration (which Eddy attended), hung first in the office of Carrie Chapman Catt, when she was chairman of the Empire State Campaign Committee, and for two years at NAWSA's headquarters in Washington. It was accepted into the National Museum of American History's collections in 1919. According to scholar Richard Kurin, this acquisition marked the beginning of the Smithsonian's efforts to document the women's suffrage movement. Eddy's 1922 photograph of a group of “Votes for Women” buttons collected by California suffragist Alice Park is in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Sarah J. Eddy was also an ardent proponent of the humane treatment of animals, helping to

found the Rhode Island Humane Educational Society in the 1890s. In October 1892, Eddy was elected one of several Vice Presidents of the American Humane Association at its meeting in Philadelphia, and at the time of her death she was reportedly a director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Eddy wrote or compiled five children's books on animals and their care between 1899 and 1938, some of which featured her photographs.

Around 1905, Eddy constructed a small building, which she called The Social Studio, on land across the street from her home in Portsmouth. The Social Studio was a community gathering place for arts and crafts classes, lectures, exhibitions and performances, and served as a venue for events that supported Eddy's causes. According to an article in Good Housekeeping, children at The Social Studio were instructed “to know and love the birds and not to disturb them or their nests” and “lantern slides were shown and talks given on protection of animals.” On August 17, 1920, it was the site of a jubilee hosted by the Newport County Woman Suffrage League, celebrating the ratification of the 19th amendment, which took place the following day.

Sarah J. Eddy died on March 29, 1945 at her home in Portsmouth. She never married and had no children; her closest relative at the time of her death was a grand-nephew. Eddy is buried with her father at the North Burial Ground in Providence.


National Humane Review, Vol. 1, No. 8, p. 174.


Sarah J. Eddy, Susan B. Anthony on the Occasion of her 80th Birthday (1900), Smithsonian Institute.


Sarah J. Eddy, Susan B. Anthony (1901), University of Rochester libraries.


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Online Sources

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