Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Sara Jane Andrews Spencer, 1837-1909
By Rachel B. Tiven, civil rights lawyer and independent historian, and author of @DailySuffragist on social media.
b. October 21, 1837 in Savona, New York
d. October 20, 1909 in New York City
Sara Andrews Spencer, a white suffrage supporter, was a mainstay of the National Woman Suffrage Association during its dramatic first decade. Spencer brought one of the first voting rights lawsuits, stormed the stage during the 1876 Centennial, and was the chief lobbyist for the 1878 introduction of the women's suffrage amendment in Congress.
She was also the first woman to speak at a major party political convention, addressing the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati in 1876. By 1881, however, Spencer had quit the movement in frustration. She remained active in reform politics, particularly on the issue of prostitution in Washington, D.C. Alongside her husband and after his death, she was the proprietor of the Spencerian Business College, a professional school for men and women. In her later years she was involved with the American Red Cross through her close relationship with Clara Barton.
On April 14, 1871, a group of more than 70 Washington, D.C. women visited the Board of Elections and demanded to register. The group included Belva Lockwood, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker; Frederick Douglass joined them as a witness. One by one, each woman presented herself, stated her name, and was refused. The D.C. Women's Franchise Association had planned the action over months of parlor meetings; the white-led group deliberately included a small number of Black women. The account in Frederick Douglass's newspaper names all the petition signers and describes Sara Spencer as the ringleader.
The resulting lawsuit, Sara J. Spencer v. the Board of Registration, was one of the earliest cases of the New Departure, a legal strategy arguing that under the 14th Amendment, the right to vote was inherent to citizenship. The federal court affirmed that women were indeed citizens, but refused to engage their constitutional claims. Judge David Cartter held that without a change to the local law specifying voters must be male, they could not vote. Such a change, in the District of Columbia, would have to be made by Congress.
While awaiting the appeal of her case, Sara Andrews Spencer grew increasingly active with NWSA. She spoke at the annual Washington convention in 1873 and 1874, and the spring convention in New York in 1874 and 1876. In January 1876, she testified before the House and Senate committees on the District of Columbia to demand "the establishment of a government in the District of Columbia which shall secure to its women the right to vote."
Spencer was not cowed by powerful men, an asset she deployed on July 3, 1876. She and other National Woman Suffrage Association activists were in Philadelphia, preparing for the nation's 100th birthday. Dignitaries from around the country gathered for a formal event at which women would be completely invisible. NWSA had repeatedly asked to be part of the celebration—or at least to attend!—and was rebuffed. The day before the ceremony, Sara Andrews Spencer made one final appeal to General Joseph Hawley, president of the Centennial Commission. She hand-delivered a letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton requesting a wordless moment in the ceremony to present their Declaration of Rights. Hawley responded that it was too late to accommodate even that. Spencer's reply was later recounted in newspapers around the country: "We are aware that your programme is published, your speakers engaged, your entire arrangements decided upon, without consulting with the women of the United States; for that very reason we desire to enter our protest."
General Hawley's refusal steeled her spine: "I never yet was forbidden by a man to do a thing, but that I resolved to do it." On July 4, in the middle of the ceremony, Spencer, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Lillie Devereux Blake walked boldly down the center aisle and handed a 3-foot-tall scroll wrapped in ribbons to Vice President Thomas Ferry. "I present to you a Declaration of Rights from the women citizens of the United States," said Anthony. Ferry bowed and accepted; some accounts describe him as looking a little pale.
In addition to her talent for direct action, Spencer's most significant contribution to women's suffrage was her effective lobbying of members of Congress. Her work enabled the introduction of the federal suffrage amendment in 1878. The lobbying for what was intended to be the Sixteenth Amendment began more than a year earlier. In November 1876, NWSA launched a petition campaign for the amendment, and a national press effort to publicize it. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described the results, which came to fruition when Congress returned to Washington in January 1877:
To Sara Andrews Spencer we are indebted, for the great labor of receiving, assorting, counting, rolling up and planning the presentation of the petitions. It was by a well-considered coup d'etat that, with her brave coadjutors, she appeared on the floor of the House at the moment of adjournment, and there, without circumlocution, gave each member a petition from his own State. . . . It is constantly said, "Women do not want to vote." Ten thousand told our Representatives at Washington in a single day that they did!
There were 293 House seats in the 45th Congress—Spencer's success not only meant organizing thousands of hand-signed petitions by Congressional district, it required identifying each member by sight. A similar effort in the Senate was rewarded with an unusually large audience of Senators on the floor, though many of them mocked the women's aspirations.
The Sixteenth Amendment was introduced one year later; it was the first introduction of the text that would be ratified in 1920. Women from every state and territory were on hand for the milestone. Sara Spencer had spent months lobbying Congress to let suffragists make their case in committee. The previous fall she appeared in person before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, where she asked the committee to hear testimony from one woman from 38 states and additional territories. She succeeded: though not quite that many women spoke, many did over two days of hearings. Spencer also leveraged a conflict about whether the women would be allowed to speak on the Senate floor into one of the first Congressional votes on woman suffrage.
Family Life and Career
One reason Spencer was able to be such an effective lobbyist was that she lived less than two miles from the U.S. Capitol. Her NWSA title for several years was Resident Congressional Committee Chair. Spencer and her husband Henry lived on L Street in a building near their school, the Spencerian Business College. Spencerian schools existed in many cities, some operated by other Spencer family members. They were more prestigious than a secretarial school, less elite than a university. Initially they taught a penmanship method invented by Spencer's father-in-law; in later years Sara Spencer's curriculum added new business technologies like the dictaphone. A remnant of the florid Spencerian script survives today in the Coca-Cola logo.
In its heyday, the Spencerian College drew members of Congress and cabinet officials to its annual commencement. The Washington, D.C. school was open to men and women, and included a small number of African American students. In addition to status as a business owner, the school gave Sara Spencer tools she used in service to the National Woman Suffrage Association. She hosted meetings and receptions in the school's large halls, she frequently took responsibility for printing pamphlets for the organization, and in 1876 she calligraphed the 3-foot-tall version of the Declaration of Rights that Susan B. Anthony presented to the Vice President.
Spencer had always worked, first as a teacher and school principal in St. Louis, and later as a journalist in New York. In her very first teaching job she appealed to the Board of Education (unsuccessfully) to contest her salary when she learned it was one-third her male predecessor's. Marrying Henry C. Spencer in 1864 gave her more economic stability than she had previously, when she was her mother and brother's sole support. Her middle-class origins in western New York were marred by her father's alcoholism, and her mother left him when Sara was a child. Spencer credited her mother for her feminism, saying in an 1878 magazine profile that "She could not remember a time since she first heard of the ballot, and her mother's wish to possess it, that she did not believe it was a woman's sacred right." Sara's mother, asked to comment on her daughter's suffrage career, said: "She is doing what I longed to do when she was a child in my arms."
Sara Andrews Spencer had very young children during her years of suffrage activity, in which she also helped run and teach at the Spencerian College. Her husband and she were both recorded as teachers in the 1880 DC census. Her son Leonard Garfield Spencer, named for James A. Garfield, a family friend, was born in 1867. In 1871 her second son, Platt Rosson Spencer was born. Known as "Rossie," he was an infant when Sara demanded to register as a voter. He died the following year at 16 months old. Her third son, Henry Jr., known as Harry, was born in 1875.
In addition to suffrage, Sara Andrews Spencer was devoted to helping girls who were being trafficked or otherwise engaging in prostitution. Throughout the 1870s—in the same period as her NWSA work—Spencer fought the licensing of prostitution in the District of Columbia, and led other social reformers in lobbying Congress to fund a D.C. Girls Reform School. The school eventually opened in 1892, "principally through the efforts of Mrs. Sara A. Spencer." Mapping the social purity politics of the nineteenth century on a political spectrum is thorny, but Spencer's sympathies clearly lay with the girls themselves, without blame or fault.
Spencer also showed tolerance and support to another group of women whose private lives were scrutinized. She defended the voting rights of Utah women, and welcomed Mormon suffragists to Washington. Utah women won the right to vote for their territorial government in 1870—one of the very first places women won full suffrage. When Utah sought statehood, opponents of polygamy made women's suffrage a bargaining chip. Sara Spencer, Belva Lockwood, and Ellen Sargent comprised a NWSA committee devoted to protecting the rights of Utah women. In 1878, Spencer and Lockwood (and Dr. Mary Walker) testified before the Senate Committee on Territories.
In a time of general anti-Mormon prejudice and profound opposition to polygamy, Spencer proposed inviting Utah's leading suffragists, both in plural marriages, to the 1879 NWSA convention. Emmeline B. Wells and Zina Young Williams (a daughter of Brigham Young) not only attended the NWSA convention, they were appointed to key committees. In January 1879, Spencer and Susan B. Anthony accompanied Wells and Williams to a meeting with President Rutherford B. Hayes. Though their effort to protect Utah women's votes was unsuccessful, Spencer earned the enduring gratitude of Emmeline Wells.
Sara Spencer was a gifted lobbyist and a political animal, so it is fitting that she was the first woman to speak at a major party political convention. Spencer traveled to the 1876 Republican convention in Cincinnati to lobby the platform committee in support of suffrage. She won only an anemic "recognition" plank. On the second day of the convention, she spoke to the crowd of 6,000 men. Reports from the day dwell on how she looked, not what she said.
The progress suffrage made in Congress over the next four years hardly influenced men's political calculations, as Sara Spencer found in 1880. She spent the summer lobbying one platform committee after another. Though most of suffrage's supporters were Republicans, the RNC again declined to act. She found the Democratic National Convention somewhat friendlier to suffragists, but Southerners who "feared the political recognition of negro women" blocked even a vague endorsement, and Spencer was skeptical they would ever change. She also addressed the platform committee of the Greenbacks, a populist third party.
At the end of that summer, Spencer resigned her post as Corresponding Secretary of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In newspaper interviews she expressed exasperation with NWSA's refusal to endorse the Greenbacks, though they too refused to include suffrage in their platform. Whatever the reasons for her departure, she does not seem to have been deeply missed.
After leaving NWSA, Spencer continued her efforts to open the Girls Reform School. Despite her frustrations with presidential politics, when longtime family friend James A. Garfield was elected president, she joined his inauguration committee. Around 1887 she became involved in the American Red Cross. She served as Secretary of the American Red Cross Auxiliary Association from 1887-92, and in 1902 was enmeshed in Clara Barton's struggle for control of the organization. Spencer's ardent letters to Barton are the only personal correspondence of Spencer's known to survive.
In the last years of Spencer's life she moved to Brooklyn to live with her son Leonard, who had become an entertainer. He performed largely in blackface, and became one of the first popular recording artists. Her granddaughter recalled Sara's last years as paranoid and unhappy. Sara Andrews Spencer died in the Home for Incurables in New York City on October 20, 1909. She is buried in Glenwood Cemetery.
Sara Andrews Spencer's suffrage activity is well-covered in History of Woman Suffrage vols. II and III. Additional details about her work, as well as about the Spencerian College, come from many contemporaneous newspaper articles, particularly the Washington, DC paper Evening Star and the Woman's Exponent of Salt Lake City.
"Justice for Women," New National Era, April 20, 1871, p. 3.
Sara J. Spencer v. the Board of Registration, Dockets of the Supreme Court of the United States, vol. N, p. 7553. One way to source this court ruling is the Gale database-- 19th Century: Suffrage Conferred by the 14th Amendment--Sara J. Spencer Vs. Board of Registration and. Washington: Judd & Detweiler, 1871. Nineteenth Century Collections Online (accessed February 7, 2021.
Federal Manuscript Census, District of Columbia, 1880. Accessed online via Ancestry Library Edition.
Ann D. Gordon, ed., The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, vol. III: National Protection for National Citizens, 1873 to 1880 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), note 4, p. 21
Much of the biographical information, especially about Sara's children and her last years, comes from a collector of old phonograph records. Ulysses "Jim" Walsh wrote for Hobbies magazine from the 1940s-1970s, and his passion for early recordings centered on a circle that included Leonard "Len" Spencer. In 1947 he published a six-part series about Len Spencer, and in 1958 a four-part follow-up with family history obtained from Len's daughter, including photos of Sara with her grandchildren and students at the Spencerian College. Walsh's articles can be read here: https://archive.org/details/FavoritePioneerRecordingArtists/page/n9/mode/2up
Information about Sara Spencer's early life is drawn from an 1878 profile in Woman's Words magazine.
Spencer's multi-year correspondence with Clara Barton, and references to Spencer in Barton's diary, can be viewed digitally at the Library of Congress. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms005010.mss11973.0382 and http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms005010.mss11973.0050
Spencer is mentioned rarely in Susan B. Anthony's correspondence, but two letters from September 1880 discuss her resignation from the NWSA board. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms997009.mss11049.001
The Library of Congress has two striking photos of Sara Andrews Spencer. They are undated, but almost certainly taken in late 1891 or 1892. 1891 was a terrible year for her; her husband Henry died at the end of August, preceded by the deaths of her daughter-in-law and her namesake granddaughter, age four. https://lccn.loc.gov/2016691941
Spencer's first name was sometimes misspelled as Sarah, including on her tombstone.