Bolton, Sarah Knowles

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BOLTON, Sarah Knowles

Born 15 September 1841, Farmington, Connecticut; died 21 February 1916, Cleveland, Ohio

Also wrote under: Sarah Knowles

Daughter of John Segar and Elizabeth Miller Knowles; married Charles Edward Bolton, 1866

Sarah Knowles Bolton traced her ancestry to the New England colonists. After her father's death in 1852, she moved with her mother to an uncle's house in Hartford, Connecticut. There Bolton met Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Sigourney, both lasting influences.

Bolton's poetry appeared in Waverly Magazine when she was fifteen. Following her graduation from the Hartford Female Seminary in 1860, she taught in Natchez, Mississippi. The outbreak of the Civil War, however, sent her home to keep school in Meriden, Connecticut. Her first book, Orlean Lamar, and Other Poems (1864), published when she was twenty-three, received mixed reviews. Wellesley (1865), a novel about the Hungarian patriot Kossuth, was serialized in the Literary Recorder a year later.

In 1866 Bolton and her husband settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where they became deeply involved in the Woman's Temperance Crusade. As assistant corresponding secretary of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Bolton publicized the Union's goals and wrote a history of the crusade for the centennial temperance volume. In 1874 she brought out a novel on the temperance theme entitled The Present Problem, but only 250 copies were sold.

In 1873 Charles Bolton lost his real estate business in the financial panic. Their struggle to repay his debts spurred Bolton's developing career as a journalist and author. From 1878 to 1881, she served as an editor of the Boston paper, The Congregationalist. While accompanying her husband on business trips to England in 1878 and 1881, she investigated women's higher education and factory working conditions. In 1883 she presented her findings on British labor relations in an influential paper delivered before the American Social Science Foundation.

Bolton published two other books of poetry, From Heart and Nature (1887, written with her son Charles Knowles Bolton), and The Inevitable, and Other Poems (1895). Her fiction includes Stories from Life (1886). The literary value of these works is obscured by their didacticism and sentimentality. Bolton's real talents lay in journalism and reform, two fields which coalesced in her series of biographies for children. Collected under titles such as Famous Men of Science (1889), Lives of Poor Boys Who Became Famous (1885), and Lives of Girls Who Became Famous (1886; Bolton recognized that femininity was as great an obstacle as poverty), these studies were written in a straightforward, vigorous style. The books sold well in the U.S. and several were reprinted in England.

Toward the end of her life, Bolton added animal welfare to a list of humanitarian interests which included labor relations, woman suffrage, temperance, and higher education. While Bolton's books shed light on 19th-century reform movements and the rise of popular education, they are perhaps most valuable to students of women's history. In Some Successful Women (1888), Famous Leaders Among Women (1895), and other collections, Bolton demonstrates that a woman can win self-respect and worldly fame through intelligence and hard work. Like the fictional Horatio Alger stories, these biographies stress the importance of education, discipline, and self-reliance. According to them, the rapidly changing modern world offers many opportunities for the self-made woman, and stands to benefit from her humanizing influence.

Yet Bolton's work reveals the strain of reconciling traditional female roles with ambition and leadership. In presenting individual women as models, she carefully balances their "masculine" achievements with "feminine" qualities: self-sacrifice, piety, sympathy. Mary Livermore's career, for example, "illustrates the work a woman may do in the world, and still retain the truest womanliness." Helen Hunt Jackson will be remembered because "she forgot self and devoted her strength to the cause of others." Bolton's championship of intellectual training, economic independence, and assertive roles for women, however, is much more vigorous than her dutiful nods to the "cult of true womanhood." Her deeper feelings about a woman's proper role appear in her portrayal of male/female relations. While convention requires her repudiation of George Eliot's unmarried living arrangement with George Henry Lewes, Bolton goes on to present a laudatory portrait of their relationship, noting especially Lewes's support of Eliot's career. Her study of the Brownings also stresses their equality and mutual respect: "Their marriage was an ideal one. Both had a grand purpose in life. Neither individual was merged in the other." Bolton's treatment of women who preferred to remain single is equally sympathetic.

Bolton encouraged young women to take themselves—their minds and their ambitions—seriously. While she showed women could achieve success in fields such as medicine, literature, education, art, and politics, she also reassured her audience that "true" womanliness and professionalism were compatible. Men, she argued, preferred educated, independent women—it was a "libel" on the sex to think otherwise. Although Bolton's skills as a publicist may have gained the upper hand, her optimistic vision bolstered feminine resolve. Her biographies of strong, fully realized women gave American girls crucial models on which to pattern their lives.

Other Works:

Facts and Songs for the People. Prepared Specially for Use in the Blaine and Logan Campaign (1884). How Success is Won (1885). Social Studies in England (1886). Famous American Authors (1887). Famous American Statesmen (1888). Ralph Waldo Emerson (1889). Famous English Authors of the Nineteenth-Century (1890). Famous European Artists (1890). Famous English Statesmen of Queen Victoria's Reign (1891). Famous Types of Womanhood (1892). Famous Voyagers and Explorers (1893). Famous Leaders Among Men (1894). Nuggets; Or, Secrets of Great Success (with F. T. Wallace, 1895). Famous Givers and Their Gifts (1896). The Story of Douglas (1898). Every-day Living (1900). Our Devoted Friend the Dog (1902). Charles E. Bolton; A Memorial Sketch (1907). Sarah K. Bolton;Pages from an Intimate Autobiography, Edited by Her Son (1923). What to Read and How to Write (n.d.). Selections from the Journal or Diary of the Late Sarah Knowles Bolton, 1894-1915 (1936).


Bolton, C. K., The Boltons in Old and New England (1890).

Reference Works:

National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892 et seq.). A Woman of the Century, F. E. Willard and M. A. Livermore (1893).