Sarah E. V. Emery was a prominent author and lecturer for the Farmers’ Alliance and held offices in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, both nationally and in her home state of Michigan. Emery's greatest significance derived from her ability to communicate populist critiques of the American economic system in a simple, direct, and commonsense manner.
Sarah Ellen Van de Vort was born in Phelps, New York, in 1838. She began her career as an educator early, teaching in the Finger Lake region of the state when she was only 18. She studied at New York's Clinton Liberal Institute, where she established her ideals as a committed Universalist. As such, she strongly advocated for prison and asylum reform, and she was strongly against capital punishment. In 1866, she moved to Midland, Michigan, in part because Michigan did not have capital punishment. There, she continued to work as an educator. In 1870, she married Wesley Emery and moved to the state capital, Lansing, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Emery believed that the promise of American liberty had been ravaged by social and economic crimes, such as prostitution, alcoholism, anarchy, business failure, and foreclosure. Ultimately, these crimes could be laid at the feet of the United States’ rich and powerful elite, who only cared to maintain their wealth and power at the expense of the rest of society. Based on this set of beliefs, she joined the Greenback Labor Party and served as a Michigan delegate to the national convention of 1884. She also worked in Michigan for the Knights of Labor.
Over the next couple of years, her state and national activism expanded. The State Republican (Lansing) reported in 1888 that she was considering a run for state superintendent of public instruction on both the Democratic and Union Labor tickets. In 1891, she joined the People's Party and became an associate editor of the party journal, the New Forum (St. Louis). That same year, she attended the supreme council of the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union in Indianapolis with Annie L. Diggs and Mary Elizabeth Lease. In 1892, she published Imperialism in America, which expanded on her earlier arguments about the “heartless money power.” In this second pamphlet, she cautioned against the control of much of the United States’ land by railroads and rich foreign bankers. In 1893 and 1894, Emery edited and published The Corner Stone, an eight-page monthly newspaper that distilled and redistributed news from other Populist papers.
While Emery was a committed Populist and Alliance member, she was also committed to temperance and woman suffrage. She asserted that when compared to the “heartless money power,” alcohol had an equal power to restrict American access to freedom. Further restricting American access to freedom was the denial of equal citizenship, which debased all of society. Emery urged that Democratic conventions to include a woman suffrage plank.
In 1892, Emery was one of the six women featured in Annie L. Diggs's article for The Arena, “The Women in the Alliance Movement.” Emery died of cancer in Lansing in 1895, leaving future income from her books first to her husband and then to Paul Vandervoort, who was president of the National Reform Press Association.
Kirstin L. Lawson
See also: Diggs, Annie L. (1853–1916) ; Farmers’ and Laborers’ Union of America (FLUA) ; Flower, Benjamin Orange (1858–1918) ; Greenback Party ; Knights of Labor ; Lease, Mary (1850–1933) ; National Reform Press Association (NRPA) ; People's Party ; The Press and Populism ; Prohibition (1919–1933) ; Vandervoort, Paul (1846–1902) ; Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)
Adams, Pauline, and Emma S. Thornton. A Populist Assault: Sarah E. Van De Vort Emery on American Democracy 1862–1895. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1982.
Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.