Sarah E. Doyle – Student to Suffragist 

Sarah E. Doyle

 Portrait of Sarah E. Doyle by Cecilia Beaux (1902)
The portrait hangs, at Sarah’s request, at the RISD Museum

Sarah E. Doyle's Tombstone

 Sarah E. Doyle died on December 21st, 1922
She rests at the Swan Point Cemetery in Providence

Sarah E. Doyle is often associated with Brown University’s Sarah Doyle Women’s Center as a pioneer in women’s education. However, Sarah got her start in education as a student at Classical (then known as Providence High School).

Sarah was born on March 23rd in 1830 in Providence, RI, the third eldest of seven children. In 1843, Providence High School opened its doors and Sarah matriculated that year as one of the school’s very first students. After graduating 3 years later in 1846, Sarah went on to become a teacher in various local private and public schools for women. She taught at Providence High School’s Girls’ Department for 36 years between 1856 and 1892. She was also the principal of the Girls’ Department for 14 years between 1878 and 1892.

With little information readily available on Sarah E. Doyle, it is unclear what events shaped her personal philosophies. However, it is evident from her career that Sarah valued education and strongly believed in the importance of educating women. Several authors note that, not only was Sarah a feminist, she was a formidable one. Sarah believed that women were inherently different than men – neither better nor equal – and that these differences ought not to be ignored. This was a common philosophy amongst advocates of the 19th century Women’s Movement, Sarah included. According to author Polly Welts Kaufman,

“[Sarah] believed that men and women were not and should not be equal. She was not so conservative as to advocate the traditional lot of household drudgery. In fact, she lobbied to assist women in learning to dispatch domestic tasks with greater efficiency. But she did share the widely-held societal notion that women were more intuitive, virtuous, loving, and sensitive than men and less competitive and aggressive. She expected that women’s vision of a harmonious, gentle world, if institutionalized, could temper men’s acquisitory and individualistic approach to life and create a more balanced, humane society, one which served the have-nots as well as the successful entrepreneurs and professional men.” (32)

Before Pembroke: Women at Brown

In the 1880s, women affiliated with Brown studied at home but took their examinations on campus and received their degrees from Brown University. Brown University’s Women’s College opened in 1891 in a building called the Slater Homestead on Benefit St. The building was generously donated by a woman of the Slater family (name unknown). With the number of women increasing over the years, Slater Homestead was replaced with Miller Hall in 1910 and housed 50 women. In 1919, Metcalf Hall was added as a second dormitory for women. However, the women of Brown University were not on Brown’s campus. There was a literal and philosophical separation between the male and female students at Brown.

While Sarah believed that the separation between the sexes was wise, she wanted women to be educated in their own building on Brown’s campus, as opposed to off-campus. Pembroke Hall was to become the place for women on Brown’s campus, replacing and incorporating the Women’s College. The hall opened in 1897 and was renamed Pembroke College in 1928.

Pembroke Hall

Women at Pembroke College (1949(

Women at Pembroke College in 1949

Sarah’s vision was supported by many influential women in the state as well as many key men at Brown University. Among her male supporters were:

Sarah and a group of her supporters raised $38,000 to fund the creation of a building to house Brown’s female students. That amount is equivalent to over $1 million in today’s dollars, attesting to the fundraisers’ skill and conviction, as well as the level of community support surrounding the mission to educate women at Brown. 

The money raised built Pembroke Hall. Brown University’s Dean Snow recommended the name ‘Pembroke’ to Sarah. The name was a tribute to Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke and widow of the Earl of Pembroke. She founded Pembroke College in Cambridge, England in 1374. Roger Williams, 9th President of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, received a bachelor’s degree from Cambridge’s Pembroke College in 1627.

The Legacy

Though Sarah herself had never attended college, she was awarded Brown’s very first honorary degree in 1894. It was a Master of Arts for her focus on educational affairs, particularly those of women. Sarah’s efforts were also recognized by her pupils. Her students at Providence High School commissioned renowned portraitist Cecilia Beaux to paint Sarah’s portrait. Interestingly, Sarah did not want her portrait hung at Providence High School, particularly because it became fully coeducational after her departure, which she disapproved of. In a handwritten letter, Sarah cites her disapproval of Providence High School’s coeducational system as the reason she chose to have her portrait hung at RISD, where it exists today. In her own words:

Shortly after I left the Girls’ Dep’t of the High School, the school became a co-educational one which it had not been and which system of education I thoroughly disapprove.”

From the women she taught at Providence High School to women at Brown, and the plethora of supporters of women’s education, Sarah E. Doyle influenced many around her. She devoted her career to being a teacher, principal, mentor, fundraiser, and advocate for women and women’s education. In a 1997 interview with Gladys Paine Johnson, who studied at Pembroke and graduated from Brown in 1913, Gladys recalls Sarah and her influence. Remembering the significance of being incorporated into Brown’s campus, Gladys says,

“(…) I think those women who belong to that society, led by Sarah Doyle, deserve so much credit because we were able to take the good from Brown, you see, into our little group. And, now, we are an intricate part of Brown University.”

 First page of a letter handwritten by Sarah E. Doyle regarding the placement of her portrait (1915)

Sarah E. Doyle influenced many – both in and beyond her time. Though she is often associated with Brown University and her commitment to creating a space on Brown’s campus for women, Sarah also has deep roots connecting her to Providence High School. She spent many years at the school, first as a student, then a teacher, and finally as principal. All three roles combined, Sarah spent 39 years of her life at Providence High School. One can only conjecture how her time at the school influenced her personal philosophies around education and women in it. However, one thing is for certain – Sarah, an alum of Providence (Classical) High School, contributed to shaping the history of Providence, women, and Brown University. As Anne T. Weeden, Pembroke alum and Sarah’s colleague writes, Sarah and her supporters fired “(…) a shot which would be heard about a little corner of the world” (3).


A very special thank you to Mary Murphy, archivist at Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, for being an invaluable source of information. 

  • “The Women’s Sphere”: Who Was Sarah Doyle? Ming Holden. Chronicles of Brunonia (article) 
  • Sarah E. Doyle: Gifted Organizer of Pembroke’s First Friends. Grace E. Hawk (article)
  • Handwritten letter from Sarah E. Doyle regarding her portrait. Sarah Doyle Women’s Center (letter)
  • Pembroke College in Brown University – The First Seventy-Five Years, 1891 – 1966. Grace E. Hawk (book)
  • The Search for Equity – Women at Brown University, 1891 – 1991. Polly Welts Kaufman (book)
  • The Women’s College in Brown University, Its Origin and Development. Anne T. Weeden (book) 
  • Douglas Doe, archivist at RISD (email) 
  • Mary Murphy, archivist at Brown University (phone call)