Sarah Platt Decker (1855–1912) was a beloved leader of women, known nationwide for her advocacy of women’s suffrage and social reform. Her influence was instrumental in the 1893 vote that gave Colorado women equal suffrage. She later became the founder and first president of the Woman’s Club of Denver and served as president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which evolved under her leadership to become a national platform for women’s issues. In addition to working for social reform, she also championed conservation and successfully pushed for the establishment of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park in 1906.
Sarah Sophia Chase was born on October 1, 1855, in McIndoe Falls, Vermont, the fifth of seven children born to Edwin and Lydia (Adams) Chase. The family moved to Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts, where her father started a lumber and paper-manufacturing business.
Sarah’s mother was a descendant of the famous Adams family of Massachusetts. Her father was a prominent antislavery and temperance advocate. He was a passionate orator known as “the fighting deacon.” Sarah, too, became involved in social reform. As a young woman, she was named a trustee of a fund for the poor of Mt. Holyoke. Helping the less fortunate became her lifelong passion.
Sarah’s formal schooling ended when she graduated from high school. In 1875, at age twenty, she married Charles B. Harris, a Mt. Holyoke merchant. When he died two years later, she experienced the lack of legal rights that women faced at the time. All her possessions, many of them wedding gifts and items she had inherited from her own family, were divided among members of her husband’s family. They left her with only one-third of her possessions, known as “a widow’s third.” She was so distressed and disgusted that she dropped her husband’s last name. The experience helped cement her lifelong beliefs in women’s suffrage and legal rights for women.
In 1884, at age twenty-eight, she met and married Colonel James H. Platt, a Civil War veteran, physician, and three-term US congressman from Virginia. They lived briefly in Queens, New York, where they worked at the Mineola Children’s Home and where Sara became involved in the child-welfare movement. In 1885 their only child, Harriet Platt, was born.
Move to Denver
In 1887 the Platts moved to Denver, where James founded a paper mill and Sarah became involved in civic life. In 1893, for example, she led the relief efforts for Coloradans devastated by the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which shuttered mines across the state. She helped the city provide a tent camp for homeless men and relief for others affected by the economic slump. At the same time, she served as a powerful campaigner for the referendum that won the vote for Colorado women in 1893. In her obituary many years later, the Rocky Mountain News assigned her “a great share of the credit” for the victory.
With suffrage achieved, Platt extended her influence into other areas of political and social reform. In 1896 she worked for presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and gained recognition as an organizer and speaker. She also remained involved in local civic affairs throughout her life, serving on the Colorado State Board of Pardons, the State Board of Charities and Corrections, the Advisory Board of the Denver County Hospital, and the Child Labor League.
The Woman’s Club of Denver
Platt found her true calling when she became involved in the women’s club movement. Starting in the mid-1800s, women’s clubs had become a popular venue for women to meet, providing them an intellectual and social outlet. By the 1890s, these clubs were shifting from social and study clubs to civic and social welfare groups. Platt played a key role in this transition, especially in Colorado. In 1894 she helped to organize and was elected the first president of the Woman’s Club of Denver, which united women’s clubs across Denver under a single organization.
Under Platt’s leadership, club members throughout the Denver area were challenged to consider “women’s work” to be the improvement of society. She instituted standing committees on public service, city improvement, temperance, public health, civil service, and legislation. Denver benefited from this new agenda as women’s clubs moved into the public realm. For example, women’s clubs opened libraries and sponsored traveling libraries, set up supervised playgrounds for children, established night classes and English-language classes for immigrant workers, opened free employment bureaus, sought to end child labor, offered medical care for the poor and working mothers, and opened nursery schools.
In 1896 Platt won acclaim for her speech at the biennial convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Kentucky, in which she emphasized the importance of the clubs’ social service work and cited the work being done in Colorado. Two years later, the Woman’s Club of Denver hosted the federation’s convention. Platt’s ability to manage the conference and her inspiring oratory vaulted her to national attention. She was elected vice president of the General Federation that year.
As her profile rose on the national stage, Platt suffered significant losses at home. In 1894 James Platt died in a boating accident. Five years later, she married Judge Westbrook S. Decker, a friend of her late husband and the attorney for his estate. In 1902 Sarah Platt Decker declined to run for president of the General Federation, perhaps out of concerns for her husband’s health. Judge Decker died in 1903; thus, by the age of forty-eight, she had outlived all three of her husbands.
The General Federation of Women’s Clubs
After Judge Decker’s death, Sarah Platt Decker accepted the presidency of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and served two terms, from 1904 to 1908. Established in 1890, the General Federation served as an umbrella group for thousands of women’s clubs that represented more than 1 million women by 1910. Decker is credited with expanding the organization into a national force and a voice for American women during her presidency. She travelled extensively, visiting more than forty state federations and delivering speeches lauded for their wit, wisdom, and common sense. She also reached beyond the federation by publishing articles that made her widely known and admired.
One of Decker’s lasting organizational contributions to the federation was the establishment of the Bureau of Information, which collected and distributed reports of club activities across the nation. The bureau facilitated communication between and among clubs and forged a closer link between the General Federation and individual clubs.
Decker also enlarged the federation’s range of interest and activism. Civil service reform, public education, child labor, juvenile justice, and public health were high on her agenda. Other issues tackled by the General Federation during Decker’s presidency centered on women’s lives at home. These concerns included promotion of home economics classes in public schools; national lobbying to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act to protect the public from misrepresentation of food, drugs, and cosmetics; and dress reform to allow women to wear practical-yet-modest clothing that did not restrict their movement.
Finally, Decker believed in the conservation of national resources and inspired women in the federation to advocate for new state and national parks. Her signature achievement was the establishment of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt invited Decker to attend the Governors’ Conference on Conservation of Natural Resources at the White House; she was the only female delegate.
Later Years and Legacy
In 1908 Decker stepped down from the presidency of the General Federation but maintained her active involvement in the organization. She chaired committees, gave speeches, and advocated for a variety of issues. She also remained active in Colorado and Denver politics, and helped to establish the liberal Citizen’s Party.
In early 1912, some Coloradans suggested Decker as a candidate for the US Senate, with a few even proposing her as a potential presidential candidate. At a time when only a handful of western states, including Colorado, allowed women the vote, it was extraordinary for a woman to be considered for national political office. She was seen as a strong contender for the Senate nomination, but it was not to be. In July 1912, she was in San Francisco for the General Federation’s biennial convention when she collapsed from an abdominal obstruction. Despite emergency surgery, Decker died two days later at the age of fifty-six.
Decker’s death was front-page news in Colorado and across the nation. She was the first woman to be given the honor of lying in state in the Colorado State Capitol. Flags were lowered to half-mast and government offices closed for her funeral. Three Colorado governors—including the sitting governor, John Shafroth—served as her pallbearers. In a tribute to Decker, former governor Alva Adams declared, “She was the most popular and perhaps the greatest citizen of the state.” Women’s clubs across the country mourned her passing.
The Decker Branch of the Denver Public Library, which opened in 1913, was named in her honor; it is located at the corner of Platt Park, whose name honors her second husband. The University of Northern Colorado offers a Sarah Platt Decker Memorial Scholarship for female students interested in social justice. In 1990 Decker was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.