Sara MacCormack Algeo

Inducted: 2020
Born: 1876
Died: 1953

Sara M. Algeo was President of the Rhode Island College Equal Suffrage League; Founder and Chair of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party; Member of Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; Rhode Island Vice President and Member of the Executive Committee of the New England Woman Suffrage Association; Chair of the Rhode Island Woman’s Americanization Committee; President of the Providence League of Women Voters; Chair of the Rhode Island National Woman’s Party; Member of the Advisory Board of the Rhode Island NAACP; Temperance and Working Women’s Club Activist; Secretary of the Rhode Island Association of Collegiate Alumnae; Teacher; Political Candidate

From the beginning, New England was central to the conflict over women’s suffrage. Immediately after independence, women’s voting rights were revoked, state by state, in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. After the Constitutional Convention, the rest of the nation followed. Nearly a century later, Rhode Island became the first state to attempt to vote on a women’s suffrage referendum, which failed to pass. In 1917, Rhode Island, like many other states in the years leading up to the 19th Amendment, granted women presidential suffrage. Sara played a vital role in those early years when women protested and suffered and risked death for the right to vote. She was also involved in the temperance movement and abolitionism. Prohibition was bolstered by reform-minded women like Sara, who believed in supporting fundamental human dignity. In 1922, Algeo and the PLWV held a “voiceless” protest at the State House in which they displayed placards with their complaints for state senators and representatives to read as they passed by. In addition, with her interracial league branch, Algeo continued her advocacy for African Americans and civil rights issues. She lobbied for a Civil Rights bill in 1920 that would ban discrimination in public accommodations in Rhode Island. She also supported a federal anti-lynching bill. In the late 1920s, Algeo also became involved in local Native American activism and was inducted into the Algonquin Indian Council. Algeo and the PLWV also offered civic classes for women and advocated for mothers’ pensions, protective legislation to protect women and child workers, and the enforcement of prohibition.

Sara was born on June 13, 1876, in Cohasset, Massachusetts, a coastal town south of Boston. Her parents were John and Sarah Clemens MacCormack; both were immigrants, John came from England but was of Scottish descent and Sarah came from Northern Ireland. She was the youngest of five children; a sixth child who died as an infant had also been named Sara. John MacCormack worked as a farm laborer but died of tuberculosis in 1879 when Sara was three years old. After his death, her mother worked as a washing woman to support the family. After graduation, MacCormack attended Boston University, along with an older brother.

MacCormack graduated with an A.B. with honors from Boston University in 1899 and moved to Rhode Island to take a job teaching French at Cranston High School. In Rhode Island, she became good friends with Ellen Tarr Calder, an older woman who had been part of the nineteenth-century women’s rights and abolition movements. Calder provided her information about the issue of woman suffrage. MacCormack’s earliest involvement with the suffrage movement was in 1906 when she attended a meeting of the Boston Equal Suffrage League on the invitation of a college friend, Sadie Rexford. .In 1925, in her memoir, Algeo explained her support for suffrage, writing, “I, for one, wanted the vote because I felt it belonged to me as a citizen, a right that had been denied my sex since the beginning of an androcentric civilization.”

By 1905, MacCormack became active in the working girls’ club movement in Rhode Island, an effort by middle-class women to provide education, leisure, and moral protection for working-   class women and girls. She served as secretary of the Rhode Island Association of Working Women’s Clubs, stayed active in the organization for many years, and collaborated with many Rhode Island suffragists who also were involved in the working women’s movement. In addition to her concern about working women, she was troubled by child labor in the United States and attended a hearing at the U.S. Senate about a child labor law in 1907. In a letter to the editor of The Providence Journal, Algeo described the hearing. She noted how dire conditions were for child workers in places such as the Southern states and the mines in Pennsylvania. However, she made the point that Rhode Island had problems with child labor as well and that “our State needs a moral awakening in the matter of child labor as well as its fellow States.” MacCormack was also active in the Rhode Island branch of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae and became its secretary in 1907.

In the early twentieth century, the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA) and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had a goal to bring more women college students and alumnae into the movement. In Rhode Island, Mrs. George Gladding, the daughter of RIWSA president, Ardelia C. Dewing, helped found a College Equal Suffrage League (CESL) in Rhode Island. The league began in December 1907, with eighteen charter members. MacCormack was one of those founding members, after Gladding had visited her home to recruit her, and became its first secretary. In her memoir, Algeo recalled her impression of the Rhode Island suffrage movement in 1907. She wrote, “Judging for the first meeting I attended, suffrage was at a low ebb in 1907. A few elderly ladies were there and the gathering, while earnest, was not exciting.” She claimed that the CESL “brought in new blood and new members” to the suffrage movement.

Sara MacCormack married James W. Algeo from Providence on September 19, 1907, in a ceremony conducted by the president of Boston University. Algeo was a Spanish-American War veteran and served as secretary and treasurer of the Artesian Well and Supply Company. The couple lived in Providence and Barrington, Rhode Island, did not have any children, and belonged to Congregationalist churches. Following her marriage, Sara Algeo, continued her activism and education, but gave up her teaching career. She attended the Women’s College at Brown University as a graduate student, earning an A.M. degree.

In 1911, Algeo hosted Emmeline Pankhurst, the famous, militant suffragist from England at her home when she visited Providence to give a speech. Pankhurst also stayed with Algeo on two subsequent trips to Rhode Island. Pankhurst and the issue of the militancy was a controversial one in the American woman suffrage movement. Algeo stated that, “I have always had intense admiration for the courage and generalship of Mrs. Pankhurst.” In an interview with The Providence Tribune, Algeo claimed that most American suffragists believed that “militancy is not only unnecessary but would be very unwise and detrimental in its results” in the United States.

In 1912, Algeo was elected president of the CESL and pursued numerous tactics to advance the suffrage cause. During the 1912 election season, she sent a letter to each assembly candidate to get them on record their position on suffrage. This was an early political lobbying effort by Algeo that she developed further in upcoming years. She helped arrange an official headquarters office for the organization at the Butler Exchange, a building that also housed the RIWSA; James Algeo donated funds to help pay for the office. Algeo and the CESL collaborated with RIWSA and Louise Hall, a shared field organizer for the organizations, on new initiatives. One of these was a suffrage booth at the Pure Food Exposition in Providence, an annual event that the suffragists continued throughout the 1910s, reaching thousands of Rhode Islanders. In The Woman’s Journal, a suffrage newspaper, Algeo wrote that the event had an expected attendance of 3,000 per day, “which offers a fine opportunity for propaganda.” She said that they emphasized selling copies of The Woman’s Journal at the event as a way of raising money and awareness.

The Providence Journal ran a series of well-publicized debates about woman suffrage in 1912.  Algeo contributed an essay that was paired with one from Mrs. Rowland G. Hazard, the leading anti-suffragist in Rhode Island. Algeo argued, “I firmly believe that the great majority of women, in their heart of hearts, do want the vote, though they have lined up on neither side, and that they see no reason why sex should mark the division line…in carrying on the work of the world.” She said that some wealthy women felt that they did not need the vote and did not want working women to get it. However, she said that, working women especially wanted the vote and that “mothers are waking up to the realization of the relation between the well-regulated home and the well-regulated Government.” This idea, that women as mothers and homemakers had special concerns and duties and that suffrage would help them better protect their homes and families was a common theme for Algeo and other suffragists in the early twentieth century.

Besides her work with the CESL, Algeo served as a Rhode Island vice president for the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA); she later became a member of the Rhode Island executive committee for NEWSA. Algeo also became a supporter and campaigner for the Progressive Party in 1912. She partnered with suffragist Maud Howe Elliot, the leader of women’s work for the Rhode Island Progressive Party, and they toured the state campaigning for Progressive candidates in cars decorated with party slogans. At an event hosted by the Progressive Party of Rhode Island, Algeo was seated next to Theodore Roosevelt, former president, and Progressive candidate for president in 1912. She quizzed him on the issues of woman suffrage and prohibition. Rhode Island suffragists supported various parties in 1912 and Algeo participated in an informal debate sponsored by the College Equal Suffrage League, in which she represented the Progressive Party. A key issue that Algeo worked on was an effort to get rid of a property ownership requirement for voting in the city of Providence. The property requirement limited the ability for women to vote despite the Nineteenth Amendment. Algeo criticized it as, “a remnant of the dark ages” and a “moth-eaten antique.”

Besides her activism and political campaigns, Algeo and her husband made two trips around the world. During the first trip in 1929, Algeo interviewed Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay, India. James W. Algeo died in 1945. He reportedly spent thousands of dollars supporting the woman suffrage movement. Sara M. Algeo died in 1953 at her home in Barrington. The Providence Journal heralded her as “one of the state’s most ardent workers for prohibition and women’s rights.” Algeo left behind important records about her activism. Her memoir provides a wealth of information and primary documents about her life, the Rhode Island suffrage movement, and the national movement.

 Sara M. Algeo was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2020.

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