A Patriotic Service: Sarah Pell’s Enduring Legacy

A charmingly aggressive woman, Sarah Gibbs Thompson Pell (1878-1939) was raised to see public service as a birthright, but one she would need to fight to achieve. She could not follow in her father Robert Means Thompson’s (1849-1930) footsteps as a Naval Academy graduate and prominent businessman, nor could she step into the arena as a candidate for elected office like her grandfather, Rhode Island Governor William Channing Gibbs (1787-1871). Instead, Sarah devoted her life to advancing the rights of women through historic preservation and political action.

Preserving an 18th-century fort may seem like an off choice for advancing universal suffrage in the 20th century, but Sarah’s words from a CBS radio address in 1936 underline her reasoning: “[M]ay the spirit of Fort Ticonderoga continue to preserve that union, that justice, that tranquility, that defense, that general welfare. that liberty and that prosperity, which the founders of our government set as worthy objectives of this nation.” Sarah believed that without preserving the past and building upon the work of those that came before, society could never achieve the ideal of liberty and justice for all. She became active in the suffrage movement in 1913 and joined Alice Paul in the newly formed National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1918, using her wealth and vast network of personal, political, and business connections to aid in the cause.