Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Sarah Hardin Sawyer, 1857-1916
By Rachel Wolters, Ph.D., Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College, Bowling Green, Kentucky
Sarah Hardin Sawyer was born in Laurel County, Kentucky in 1857 and died there in 1916. She was very active in the woman suffrage movement and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Sawyer often combined her involvement in these two movements and organizations. For example, she served as the Superintendent of the Department of Bible Study in the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, and also discussed the need for women's equality within the church. Supporting her in these organizations was her husband, Rev. Jesse Anderson Sawyer. Rev. Sawyer taught at Laurel Seminary in London, Kentucky, and then became a minister in the M.E. Church, South in 1866. The couple married in 1877. While the Reverend appeared to support Sawyer's involvement in the suffrage movement, records indicate that the marriage had fallen apart by the early 1900s.
Sawyer was most active in the suffrage movement during the 1890s. In 1889 she was one of the founding members of the Laurel County Equal Rights Association in London, Kentucky. The group initially had ten members and Sawyer served as the organization's Recording Secretary. As mentioned, Sawyer was also active in KERA. At meetings, Sawyer often led the group in opening and closing prayers, and she gave reports as the Superintendent of Bible Study. These reports often explained the current state of support for women's equality among different churches; she often focused on the M.E. Church South since she was active in that organization, too. In 1890, Sawyer reported at the KERA convention that the Free Methodist General Conference recently passed a resolution saying that anyone qualified for ordination could not be refused on the basis of sex or race. Statements of ministers who supported equality were also published, and Sawyer oversaw the distribution of these statements on flyers. She concluded her report by stating that over 700 women were preachers, pastors, and evangelists in the United States; only four were known to her in the commonwealth of Kentucky, but she had hope for the future. By 1892, Sawyer was credited with work that led to Wesleyan College in Winchester admitting women into its programs—an important step in women obtaining positions as preachers and pastors.
In 1891, Sawyer was part of a special "Frankfort Committee," charged with lobbying the state legislature to consider issues important to women. Sawyer was in charge of discussing municipal suffrage. The following year, Sawyer was on a KERA committee that interviewed Governor John Y. Brown about woman suffrage. In that meeting, Governor Brown told the women that his wife stated she was in favor of property rights of married women; he kept his private views about the issue to himself.
Throughout the decade of the 1890s, Sawyer worked diligently within KERA. In addition to providing prayers and reports of Bible Study, her name also appears numerous times as one of the lecturers for the Free Lecture Bureau. Women in the Bureau volunteered to lecture to audiences about suffrage as needed around the state. Sawyer was also a supporter of industrial training, and she often gave lectures at the conventions on that subject. Sawyer represented Kentucky at national suffrage meetings in 1892 and 1895. She was an alternate delegate in 1897. Sawyer's local suffrage activity shifted from London to Jessamine County in the mid-1890s when her husband took a post in Wilmore. In 1894 and 1895, Sawyer served as the Secretary of the Jessamine County ERA.
In connection to her work in KERA, Sawyer was also active in The Women's Parsonage and Home Mission Society of the Kentucky Conference M.E. Church, South. The Society was organized in 1886 with the goals of building homes for ministers and carrying out mission and education work. Sawyer served as the Second Vice-President of the organization throughout the 1890s, and she helped organize its annual conferences. At the conferences, she presented papers that argued, with scriptural references, that women and their work belonged in the church. Through this society, Sawyer also hoped to establish industrial training schools in Eastern Kentucky, similar to the one she helped to establish in her hometown of London.
It appears that Sawyer's personal life might have affected her involvement in the suffrage movement as she disappears from KERA records by the early 20th century. Sawyer moved to Washington D.C. in 1900, and she was listed as the Secretary and Treasurer for the Secular League in the city—an involvement that also indicates she moved away from her roles in the Methodist Church. Sawyer moved to the city on her own, as her husband faced scandals in Kentucky. Records show that in 1902 Rev. Sawyer faced suspension and charges by the Methodist Church relating to "immorality" and "conduct unbecoming a preacher" in connection to inappropriate behavior with married women. Ultimately, Rev. Sawyer was exonerated, but this situation was likely the reason that Sarah Sawyer separated from her husband and spoke about more radical ideas in the 20th century. At a Secular League meeting in 1906, Sawyer made it clear that she believed divorce should be made easier, that marriage was a contract between two people and they should be able to end the marriage if they chose to do so. She also noted that women's financial dependency kept them in unhappy marriages and unable to express their opinions openly. While living in Washington, Sawyer worked for the Census Bureau as a clerk. After suffering from a stroke in 1912, Sawyer retired and moved back to Laurel County, Kentucky and lived with her sister until her death in 1916.
Courier-Journal. Woman Suffragists Meet: The Equal Rights Association in Session." Louisville, KY: December 9, 1891.
Courier-Journal. "Equal Rights Association: Third and Last Day of the Women Suffragists' Convention." Louisville, KY: December 11, 1891.
Courier-Journal. "Exonerated." Louisville, KY: September 6, 1902.
Courier-Journal. "Miss Laura Clay, Mrs. S. H. Sawyer..." Louisville, KY: February 12 1892.
Courier-Journal. "Equal Rights Association: State Convention of the Kentucky Branch in Session at Covington." Louisville, KY: October 15, 1897.
Cox, Hank. "Sarah 'Sally' Hardin Sawyer." April 4, 2015. Find A Grave Memorial. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/144576024/sarah-sawyer
Evening Bulletin. "The Women's Parsonage and Home Mission Society..." Maysville, KY: October 18, 1895.
Evening Bulletin. "Minister Suspended." Maysville, Kentucky: March 21, 1902
Evening Bulletin. "Editorial." Maysville, Kentucky: March 24, 1902
Evening Star. "Secular League Officers." Washington, D.C.: May 6, 1901.
Evening Star. "Marriage and Divorce." Washington, D.C.: February 19, 1906.
Evening Star. "Mrs. Sarah H. Sawyer Dies." Washington, D.C.: May 11, 1916.
Kentucky Advocate. "Equal Rights Association." Danville, KY: December 19, 1890.
Kentucky Advocate. "Adjourned." Danville, KY: October 23, 1896.
Kentucky Equal Rights Association. "Minutes of the Third Annual Convention, Held at the Court House, Richmond, KY." Newport, KY: 1890. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7qjq0stw6w?q=kentucky+equal+rights+association&per_page=20#page/1/mode/1up/search/kentucky+equal+rights+association
Kentucky Equal Rights Association. "Minutes of the Fifth Annual Convention, Held at the Court House, Richmond, KY." Newport, KY: 1892. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7g1j979c7k?f%5Bsource_s%5D%5B%5D=Kentucky+Equal+Rights+Association+minutes+and+reports&per_page=20#page/1/mode/1up
Kentucky Equal Rights Association. "Minutes of the Seventh Annual Convention, Held at Merrick Lodge, Lexington, KY." Newport, KY: 1894. https://archive.org/stream/minutesofannualc7913kent/minutesofannualc7913kent_djvu.txt
Kentucky Equal Rights Association. "Minutes of the Eighth Annual Convention, December 10th, 11th, and 12th, Held at the Court House, Richmond, KY." Newport, KY: 1895. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt72v6988v00?f%5Bsource_s%5D%5B%5D=Kentucky+Equal+Rights+Association+minutes+and+reports&per_page=20#page/1/mode/1up
Kentucky Equal Rights Association. "Minutes of the Ninth Annual Convention, Held at Guild Hall, Trinity Church, Covington, KY." Newport, KY: 1897. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7z348gj77j?q=kentucky+equal+rights+association+Ninth&per_page=20#page/1/mode/1up/search/kentucky+equal+rights+association+Ninth
National Woman Suffrage Association. "Report of the Sixteenth Annual Washington Convention, March 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th, 1884." Rochester, NY: Press of Charles Mann, 1884.
Owensboro Messenger. "Views: It is the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association." Owensboro, KY: October 25, 1894.
Public Ledger. "Woman's Parsonage and Home Mission of Kentucky." Maysville KY: October 19, 1895.
Semi-Weekly Interior Journal. "A Successful Meeting." Stanford, KY: July 2, 1895.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Gage, Harriot Stanton Blatch, and Ida H.
Harper. The Complete History of the Suffragette Movement—All 6 Books in One Edition. The Battle for the Equal Rights: 1848-1922 (Including Letters, Newspaper Articles, Conference Reports, Speeches, Court Transcripts, Decisions). Musaicum Books, 2017. [LINK]