Sarah Jenney Gilbert Kerlin (1878-1965)
By Lisa Hendrickson, Independent Historian
This biographical sketch was first published on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here by permission. That database is accessible at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN
President of the Equal Suffrage League of Camden (elected 1914), Second Vice President New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association in 1916
***She went by many names: Mrs. Ward Dix Kerlin, Mrs. W. D. Kerlin, Jenney Gilbert Kerlin, Jenney G. Kerlin, Sarah Jenney Kerlin, and Sarah Jenney Gilbert
Sarah Jenney Gilbert Kerlin was born in Brooklyn, NY on December 1, 1878 to Quaker parents John Bellamy and Catharine Russell Nye Gilbert. She had a sister, Grace Russell and two brothers, John Bellamy and Frederick. She majored in political science and sociology graduating in 1902 from Cornell University in its first class of women. Active at school, she was the secretary of the Women’s Department and Secretary of the Cornell University Christian Association. She married fellow Cornell Graduate Ward Dix Kerlin on September 2, 1902 in Devon, PA. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1900 and took his first job with NY Shipbuilding in Camden, NJ. By 1905, he had bought an interest in the Camden Forge Company and later acquired an interest in Camden Trust Company. They were a prosperous family with their children attending private Quaker schools and summering in New Hampshire. In the 1940s he became a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Initially the couple lived at 314 State Street in Camden, NJ, but around 1910 they moved to Moorestown, NJ. They had three children, Ward Dix Jr., Catharine (1906-2006), and Gilbert. Her daughter Catherine Kerlin Wilder was also politically active and married the writer and theologian Amos Wilder the brother of Thornton Wilder.
Kerlin was active in several organizations including the Theta Alumnae association, the Daughters of the Republic, the Bay View Reading Circle, the Woman’s Club of Camden, the Camden Civics Club, and the Unitarian Church.
It is not know exactly when she joined the suffrage movement, but in 1910, Alice Paul staged a large suffrage rally of approximately 500 people in Moorestown, NJ and Kerlin likely attended. She was elected President of the Camden Equal Suffrage League in 1914 and in that role gave many public speeches in support of suffrage. In April 1914 she participated in the executive board meeting of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association (NJWSA) held in Camden. At the meeting, twenty-two towns and cities sent representatives to the conference to learn from suffrage leaders. Kerlin spoke of the work being done by the Camden League; stating that they held one meeting each month in different schools in each of the political wards in Camden. She said that by holding meetings in different sections, the audiences were different and by involving teachers in the process, it got them interested in the movement. In November 1914 she served as the committee chair overseeing the 24th annual New Jersey Woman Suffrage Convention held in Camden.
The Trenton Suffrage Campaign Committee held a conference for suffrage workers in February 1915 which was attended by women from counties all over the state. Among the many speakers, Lillian Feickert gave a speech titled “Working to Win” and Kerlin gave a speech titled “Running a Suffrage Booth.” In an article she wrote published in The Morning Post (of Camden), she says, “It is the independent vote in the State that will determine the fate of suffrage on October 19, and if this city lines up with the rank and file of the Democratic electorate in following the President on suffrage, a sweeping victory for suffrage will result.”
At the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association Convention held in January 1916 in Elizabeth, Kerlin was elected a second Vice President. By then there were 215 local NJWSA branches with a membership of over 50,000 people in New Jersey. During the war years, like many suffragists, Kerlin was involved in selling war bonds and in 1917 she was appointed to the New Jersey Women’s Liberty Loan Committee along with Lillian Feickert, Caroline Stevens Whittpenn, and Augusta Parsonnet. In 1919, Kerlin organized a house-to-house canvas held in Riverton, NJ for Enrollment Day for Woman Suffrage. Petitions signed by 250,000 people were presented in Trenton asking for suffrage for women.
After 1920, Kerlin remained active in women’s rights serving as the first treasurer of New Jersey League of Women Voters and was the State legislative chairman of Camden County. She was continued her involvement in the community serving on the Board of Managers of Four Mile Colony, a vocational community for non-neurotypical men and Boys. She passed away on October 16, 1965 at the age of 86 and is buried in Moorestown Meeting burial ground.
Leonard, John William. Woman’s Who’s who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, Volume 1. American Commonwealth Company: New York, 1914.
Harper, Ida Husted, editor, The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol VI, 1900-1920, (New York: J.J. Little & Co., 1922), pg. 426. https://books.google.com/books?id=vdgDAAAAYAAJ
“Suffrage League in Busy Season,” The Courier-Post, (Camden, NJ), April 25, 1914, pg. 14.
“Women Plan for Great Gathering,” Plainfield News, October 27, 1914, pg. 2.
“Trenton Mecca of Suffragists,” The Courier-Post, February 25, 1915, pg. 5.
“The Fate of Equal Suffrage,” The Morning Post (Camden, NJ), October 13, 1915, pg. 6.
“Suffragists Selling Liberty Loans Bonds,” The Central New Jersey Home News (Bridgewater, NJ), June 5, 1917, pg. 4.
“Mrs. Ward Dix Kerlin,” The New York Times, October 17, 1915, pg. 86.
The New Era (Riverton, NJ), 1919.
The Beinecke Library at Yale University has several pins and pennants from her voting activism, including her name tag from the National Suffrage Convention in Atlantic City in 1916 and a delegate pin from the Victory Convention of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association in Newark in 1920.
Wikipedia: The Camden Forge Company
- Federal Census 1900, 1910