Sarah Gibson Humphreys (1830-1907): Writer, Speaker, Suffragist

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Sarah Gibson Humphreys was born in 1830 in Warren County, Mississippi to Tobias Gibson of that state and Louisiana Breckinridge Hart of Kentucky.  On June 21, 1853, she married a cousin Joseph Alexander Humphreys of Woodford County, Kentucky, and in ten years of marriage they had five children, three of whom survived: Lucy, Sarah or “Sallie,” and Joseph.  Sarah’s husband suffered from poor health, and in 1863, Joseph died, leaving Sarah widowed at age thirty-three.  Although her time was quite consumed with raising children and overseeing their education, as well as maintaining property in both Kentucky and Louisiana, Sarah, especially later in her life, wrote extensively and was dedicated to advancing equal rights for women.

By her own account, Sarah’s father, Tobias, “came of a long line of clergymen who were the pioneers of Methodism in the South,” and that “he educated me up to the idea that or advancing civilization would sooner or later demand not only the political enfranchisement of women but their equal share in the control of the government.”  Of her mother, Louisiana, Sarah noted her “masculine intellect, great force of character and strength of will.”  So in 1888, when activist Josephine K. Henry, also of Woodford County, approached her about joining the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) and the suffrage cause, she found a willing ally in Sarah Humphreys.  Theretofore, Sarah’s efforts had largely been directed toward promoting the free kindergarten movement and various literary endeavors (where she also wrote under the pen names "Stereo" and "Preston Connelly"), but Sarah increasingly turned toward promoting suffrage and other women’s issues.

Sharing the Christian ethos of KERA and its towering personality, Laura Clay, Humphreys served as superintendent of the organization’s Press Department between 1893 and 1898 and gave numerous speeches at the organization’s annual conventions.  Notably, in 1889, Humphreys addressed the second annual KERA convention in Lexington on “Man and Woman in the Bible,” wherein she expounded on the gendered duality of God’s spirit and the equality of men and women.  Dismissing the idea that men and women were designed for separate spheres, Humphreys cited Biblical examples to argue instead for a divine mandate for women’s equality—a political equality accompanying spiritual equality

Humphreys’ reputation as a writer and public speaker grew.  One regional newspaper stated that “her political writings are so full of good, sound logical sense that they carry conviction to all who read them.”  Said another, “Mrs. Humphreys is probably the most talented woman in the South, a bold thinker, finely educated, conservative and loyal to her convictions of right and truth.”  In 1892 at the fifth convention of KERA in Richmond, and pursuant to Laura Clay’s request, Humphreys spoke about the People’s Party and how she believed that party made a mistake in not including a suffrage plank in its platform.  The South is supportive and ready for that step, she explains.  Then at the next year’s convention in Newport, Humphreys gave a speech entitled “Man’s True Estimate of Women.”  Humphreys also served as a delegate to the National Women’s Rights Convention in Washington, whereupon the Lexington Gazette proclaimed, “there will be no brighter or more intelligent delegate in that convention . . . for as a conversationalist she is brilliant and effective.”

Despite her growing reputation, Humphreys’ efforts to persuade the Kentucky legislature to enact a revised age of consent law for girls, from age twelve to eighteen, proved unsuccessful.  In 1893, KERA tasked Mary R. Jones and Sarah Humphreys with leading this endeavor, and Humphreys began circulating petitions, writing letters, and submitting articles in the local newspapers to educate and persuade for the need to raise the age of consent.  While the revised law’s intent was to protect young girls from “the crime of prostitution at an age when girls are mentally, morally and physically immature, yet physically capable of crime,” the legislative committee chairman “tried to make the ladies believe that the age of consent referred to marriage and not to prostitution.”  Though supporters argued to the contrary, the legislative session ended in 1894 without a vote on the proposed revision.

Humphreys also dedicated her writing and speaking toward obtaining woman suffrage, a message not entirely separate from her previous thoughts on religion and greater equality for women in general.  Consistently arguing against religious justifications for inequality, she contended “That being equal before God they [American women] shall also be equal among men, in all the immunities and rights of free citizens, just as they are equal, where punishment and the payment of taxes are in question.”  She argued that the ballot meant freedom—“freedom to be herself, to live out her own life along the lines of her own choosing, to make the most and best of herself.”  Ultimately, advancing the rights of women, in Humphreys’ view, also uplifted men and propelled the entire civilization forward.

Through her work with KERA and, indeed, in her personal life, Sarah Gibson Humphreys challenged nineteenth- and early twentieth-century societal gender divisions.  Though her life story and activities may be lesser known than other suffragists, she was an important foot soldier, helping to upset the status quo and move the needle toward greater equality for women.  No shrinking violet, she once wrote, “My daughters and myself have lived for years alone . . . and enjoyed a sense of perfect security from the fact that our pistols were always ready and in reach, and that we knew how to use them . . .”  That fighting spirit emerged time and again in her efforts to attain rights for women.

Sarah Gibson Humphreys died on May 31, 1907 in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana at the family’s “Magnolia” home and is buried in the Lexington (Ky.) Cemetery.

Sources:

Fuller, Paul E.  Laura Clay and the Woman’s Rights Movement. 1975. Reprint, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992.

Gibson-Humphreys Family Papers, 1840-1955, 1847-1897. Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY.

“Humphreys” family surname file. Woodford County Historical Society, Versailles, KY.

Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Minutes of the Fifth Annual Convention, Held at the Court House, Richmond, KY, 1892.  Accessed 1 May 2018. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7g1j979c7k_1?.

Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Minutes of the Sixth Annual Convention, Held at the Christian Church, Newport, KY, 1893. Accessed 1 May 2018. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7b8g8fj44g_1.

Knott, Claudia.  “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Kentucky, 1879-1920.” PhD diss., University of Kentucky, 1989.

LaBach, Bill. “Sarah Thompson Gibson Humphreys.” June 24, 2002.  Accessed January 30, 2018. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/6543475/sarah-thompson-humphreys.

McBride, Mary G. and Ann M. McLaurin. “Sarah G. Humphreys: Antebellum Belle to Equal Rights Activist, 1830-1907.” The Filson Club History Quarterly 65, no. 2 (April 1991): 231-251.

Minutes of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, November 19th, 20th, 21st, 1889, Court House, Lexington, KY, with Reports and Constitution.  Accessed 1 May 2018. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7v9s1km53j_1?.


This essay contributes to the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project's Biosketches (for the full list of all the KWSP biosketches, jump here) and it will also be published as part of the national database edited by Katheryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600-2000.