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Stearns, Sarah Burger (1836–1904)

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Sarah Burger Stearns

Sarah Burger Stearns in Duluth, 1880.

Sarah Burger Stearns was a committed reformer dedicated to the cause of women’s rights. She founded one of Minnesota’s first suffrage organizations, the Rochester Woman Suffrage Association, in her home city of Rochester. In 1881, she was elected the first president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA). Although she resigned in 1883 due to ill health, Stearns stayed involved in the suffrage cause throughout the 1880s and into the 1890s.

Sarah Burger Stearns was born on November 30, 1836, in New York City. She grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, after her parents moved there in 1845. She became involved in the fight for women’s rights in her teenage years, when she served as the president of a literary society for girls and edited her high school’s newspaper. Her first article for the paper, in fact, addressed the University of Michigan’s refusal to enroll women. In 1858, Burger and other young women petitioned the university to allow women to enroll. When their petition failed, Burger instead attended the State Normal School. She graduated with high honors and became a teacher.

In 1863, Burger married Ozora Stearns, a lieutenant in the Union army during the Civil War. He left for battle shortly after their marriage, and Stearns taught at the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Monroe, Michigan. Stearns involved herself with providing aid throughout the war and visited hospitals, where she “learned the details of the work, as well as the necessities required there.” She also gave lectures on topics ranging from war aid to dress reform for women.

At the close of the Civil War, Stearns and her husband moved to Rochester, Minnesota, where Ozora served as Olmsted county attorney and then mayor of Rochester. Stearns immediately involved herself with suffrage work. She gave a speech during Fourth of July celebrations in 1866 about women’s suffrage and wrote about various women’s topics in newspapers like the Rochester Post.

Stearns befriended and worked closely with Mary Jackman Colburn, a suffragist who lived in Champlin. Together, they petitioned to speak before the Minnesota legislature on a constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote by removing the word “male” from the constitution's reference to voting rights. In 1868, the legislature voted on the proposed amendment but failed to adopt it.

Undeterred, Stearns continued forward. In 1869, she founded one of Minnesota’s first suffrage organizations in Rochester. When she and her husband moved to Duluth in 1872, she continued her work there and founded the Duluth Woman Suffrage Club. Throughout the 1870s and ’80s, Stearns and other suffragists continued to appeal to the state legislature for an amendment to the Minnesota constitution, but these efforts narrowly failed several times. In one instance, the amendment passed both the House and the Senate but was then vetoed by Governor Horace Austin. Stearns also worked with other Minnesota suffragists to found more suffrage clubs around the state.

Beyond suffrage, Stearns dedicated herself to various social reforms. She made housing available for women and children in need of shelter and food—an effort that evolved into the Duluth Children’s Home. In 1875, when women were granted the right to vote in, and to run in, school board elections, Stearns ran and served on Duluth’s school board for three years. She also made an unsuccessful bid for school inspector in 1878. Like many other suffragists, she supported the temperance movement; she was the secretary for Duluth’s chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

For Stearns and other Minnesota suffragists, the need for a state association to unite the movement became clear, and in 1881 the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) was formed in Hastings. Stearns was elected the association’s first president and served for two years before resigning in 1883 due to health issues.

When Ozora Stearns developed health issues of his own in 1895, the couple moved to California, although they still returned to Duluth in the summer months. Sarah Stearns continued her work advocating for equal suffrage until her death in 1904.

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Brockett, L. P., and Mary C. Vaughan. Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience. Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy, 1867.

“Founder of the Childrens’ Home and One of the Little Inmates.” Duluth Herald, November 11, 1911.
https://www.mnhs.org/newspapers/lccn/sn83016458/1911-11-11/ed-1/seq-1

Green, William D. The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity in Minnesota, 1860–1876. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Meyer, Sabine N. We Are What We Drink: The Temperance Battle in Minnesota. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

Sommerdorf, Norma, and Sheila Ahlbrand. “Sarah Burger Stearns.” In The Privilege for Which We Struggled: Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Minnesota, edited by Heidi Bauer. St. Paul: Upper Midwest Women’s History Center, 1999.

“Stearns, Mrs. Sarah Burger.” A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life, edited by Frances E. Willard and Mary A. Livermore. New York: Charles Welles Moulton, 1893.

Stearns, Sarah Burger. “Minnesota.” In History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 3, 1876–1885, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Salem, NH: Ayer, 1985 (reprint).

Stuhler, Barbara. Gentle Warriors: Clara Ueland and the Minnesota Struggle for Woman Suffrage. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.

[Untitled]. Rochester Post, September 20, 1878.
https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/viewer.jsp?doc_id=mnhi0031%2F1EME5F57%2F78092001&query1=&recoffset=0&collection_filter=All&collection_name=f8b14a45-84e8-4111-aa54-ec2fa88a91ce&sort_col=relevance&objRsltIdx=2&CurSearchNum=1&recOffset=0.

Related Images

Sarah Burger Stearns
Sarah Burger Stearns
Sarah Burger Stearns
Sarah Burger Stearns
Sarah Burger Stearns
Sarah Burger Stearns
Sarah Burger Stearns
Sarah Burger Stearns
Women suffrage meeting at Rice Park in St. Paul
Women suffrage meeting at Rice Park in St. Paul

Turning Point

In 1881, Sarah Burger Stearns is elected the first president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association, cementing her status as one of Minnesota’s pioneering suffrage leaders.

Chronology

1836

Sarah Burger is born in New York City on November 30.

1845

Burger and her family move to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

1858

Burger and twelve other young women petition the University of Michigan to allow women to enroll.

1863

Burger marries Ozora Stearns.

1866

Sarah and Ozora move to Rochester, Minnesota.

1869

Sarah Stearns and Mary Jackman Colburn found the first suffrage organizations in Rochester and Champlin.

1872

Stearns and her husband move to Rochester.

1875

The Minnesota Legislature grants women the right to vote and run in school board elections.

1881

The Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association is founded. Stearns is elected its first president.

1883

Stearns steps down as president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association after two years in office.

1895

Stearns and her husband move to California.

1904

Stearns dies on October 26.