Biographical Sketch of Sarah Elizabeth Birdsall Otis (Mrs. Frederick) Edey

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920

Biography of Sarah Elizabeth Birdsall Otis (Mrs. Frederick) Edey, 1872-1940

By Joyce Weaver, Director of Library & Archives, The Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC

Reception Committee, 3rd Annual Suffolk County Suffrage Convention 1916; Secretary, Suffolk County (NY) Conferences 1916-1917; Press Chairman, New York State Woman Suffrage Party 1917; Chair, New York State Second Campaign District, 1917; State Suffrage Representative for Census Work, 1917

Sarah Elizabeth Birdsall Otis was born June 25, 1872 in Bellport, Long Island, New York to James Otis, a New York State senator (1836-1898), and Mary Adelia Ludlam Otis (1837-1890). Nicknamed “Bird,” she had two sisters, Martha and Mary. A project she undertook at the age of twelve, a paper doll house, was preserved, and photographed and published by Thames and Hudson in 2014, as the book, The Paper Doll's House of Miss Sarah Elizabeth Birdsall Otis, aged Twelve, by Eric Boman. “Bird” married Frederick C. Edey (1865-1926) a member of the New York Stock Exchange, in 1893. They resided in New York City and on Long Island in Bellport. The couple's home in New York City was designated a City landmark in 2007 for its French Renaissance Revival style. Their daughter, Julia Heyward Edey Paige, was born in 1894.

Edey served as an officer in a number of county and state suffrage organizations. In June 1916, she served on the reception committee for the annual Suffrage County Suffrage Convention that met in Riverhead, New York. In January of 1917, she and several other “women prominent in the suffrage movement' attended the opening of the state legislature in Albany and “witnessed the introduction of a resolution favoring the resubmission of the ‘votes for women' proposal to the voters of the state next November.” The Edeys' summer home Near-the-bay in Bellport, Long Island was the site of many suffrage functions. On September 14, 1917, Edey hosted the Campaign Conference of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party of Suffolk County there. The delegates celebrated having “enrolled 15,005 women for suffrage in the county.” Edey announced to the delegates that “we must not fail to bring home to the voters of this county the fact that such a tremendous sentiment for Suffrage exists among their own women. We have enrolled almost as many women as the combined vote for and against Suffrage in 1915. We have the indisputable argument in the fact that they want Suffrage to a number as large as the combined “yeas” and “nays” of the men in 1915.” Edey spoke at a rally in Mt. Vernon that same month and “emphasized the need for persistent, systematic work on the part of every suffragist, saying that New York state may be won over to exhibit the spectacle of democracy that will inspire the sons of American women in the trenches abroad.” Opening the First Assembly District meeting in Sag Harbor in October 1917, Edey declared, “there ought not to be one man anywhere in the state who does not know that the amendment is to be voted on Nov. 6th, but in case there should be one man, we must redouble our efforts to canvass every voter in such district. The question of Woman Suffrage is too important to come to the voter unheralded.”

In a 1917 letter to the editor of the East Hampton Star, Edey chastised the women picketing President Wilson and bemoaned that their “misguided doings” be “laid on the shoulders of all Suffragists.” After women acquired the vote in New York State, Edey was active in the League of Women Voters, serving as chair of the intelligence committee of the New York State League. She is reported as stating that she had learned three things during the successful campaign for women's suffrage in New York: “how to organize groups to do a special piece of work; to speak in public; to get along with people.” Edey also realized that women for whom she had worked to acquire the vote, “were not ready for their enfranchisement, that people needed to be trained to be citizens early in life.” Experience helping a scout troop with the sale of liberty bonds during World War I led Edey to believe that scouting “offered preparation for citizenship.” Edey stated, “The Girl Scouts are convinced that they are providing outlets and ways of life for American girls which . . . tend to build up the sturdy, many-sided character which makes good citizens.”

Beginning as captain of a troop in Bellport, Edey served the Girl Scouts in a variety of roles, including: first editor of the Girl Scout magazine, Girl Scout Commissioner of Manhattan in 1919, Chair of the National Field Committee from 1920-1930, member of the National Board of Directors and its executive committee from 1920-1930, and chair of the international committee from 1936-1940. She notably served as national president of the Girl Scouts of America from 1930-1935, and in 1935 was named National Commissioner, an office created especially for her, and in which she served until her death in 1940. Two Girl Scout camps are named in her honor, one in Pennsylvania and one in New York. An inscription in the GSA/USA Book of Memory states, “with the exception of our founder, Juliette Low, there has never been any member of the National Board so well known to so many people in so many parts of the country. Her ability to tell stories, to lead singing, to recite and compose poetry, to camp, to play games, and to folk dance, combined with her remarkable friendliness and quick sense of humor endeared her to all the girls and leaders with who she came in contact. Above all, her example of playing the game of Scouting and living it with all her might established her as one of the great pioneers of the movement.”

Birdsall Otis Edey was the author of two books of poetry and of plays. Other community leadership roles included president of the Craftsman Group for Poetry, president of the Bellport Taxpayers' Association, a director of the Women's City Club, President of the Bellport Memorial Library, president of the Bellport Garden Club, member of the Bellport Yacht Club, Bellport Country Club, Bellport auxiliary of the Southside hospital, and the local Red Cross committee, and was the director of the American Women's Association from 1928 to 1929. She passed away March 17, 1940 at the age of 67.


The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY) Jan 3 1917, “Luncheon in Honor of Mrs. Whitehouse” (accessed Jan 31, 2019)

Cityland: New York City Land Use News and Legal Research (New York City, NY) “Two East 56th Street Townhouses Designated” (accessed Dec 28 2018)

Commercial Advertiser (Potsdam Junction, NY) Feb 13 1917 “Women Act Promptly: Suffrage Party Volunteers for Active Service” (accessed May 19 2019)

Courier and Freeman (Potsdam, NY) March 13 1984 “League Salutes Scouts,” (accessed May 12 2019)

East Hampton Star (East Hampton, NY) June 16 1916 “Suffrage Convention in Riverhead,” p. 1 (accessed May 19 2019)

East Hampton Star (East Hampton, NY) June 29 1917 “Communication” (accessed May 12 2019)

East Hampton Star (East Hampton, NY) Oct 12 1917 “Women Are After the Vote” (accessed May 19 2019)

Massapequa Post (Massapequa, NY) July 20 2016, “1st Act in Legislature Made a Spittoon, a Flower Vase' – Part III”, by Sandi Brewster-Walker, (accessed Dec 28 2018)

The Mid-Island Mail (Medford, NY) March 20 1940 “Mrs. Fred'k Edey Dies in New York” (accessed May12 2019)

The Mid-Island Mail (Medford, NY) “Mrs. Edey Leaves Gifts to Church, G. Scouts, Library” (accessed May 12 2019)

The New Rochelle Pioneer (New Rochelle, NY) Sept 15 1917 “Suffrage Rally at Mt. Vernon” (accessed May 19 2019)

New York State Women's History “Sarah Birdsall Otis Edey” (accessed Dec 28 2018)

New York Times (New York City, NY) Sept 24 2014, “A Suffragist's Start,” by Elaine Louie, (accessed Dec 28 2018)

The Republican-journal (Ogdensburg, NY) Jan 4 1917 “Suffragists See Their Resolution Introduced Again” (accessed May 19 2019)

Sarah Birdsall Otis Edey (1872-1940) – Find a Grave Memorial (accessed Dec 28 2018)

South Side Signal (Babylon, NY) Oct 6 1916 “Suffolk ‘Suffs' in Big Pow Wow” (accessed May 19 2019)

South Side Signal (Babylon, NY) June 8 1917 “State Census on Monday Next” (accessed May 19 2019)

Spinzia, Raymond E., “Winning the Franchise – Long Island Activists in the Fight for Woman's Suffrage and Their Opponents, Long Island's Anti-Suffragists, 2018.”

The Suffolk County News (Savville, NY) Sept 14 1917 “Ready for the Campaign” (accessed May 19 2019)

The Sun (New York, NY) Jan 4 1917 “Women See Sure Victory” (accessed May 19 2019)


Birdsall Otis Edey, writer and prominent Girl Scout leader, who later served as National President of Girl Scouts of the USA, at a rally with Girl Scouts in Central Park, New York City, 1920.
Credit: National Historic Preservation Center, Girl Scouts of the USA
(Posted on the Girl Scouts Facebook page Feb 25 2014)

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