By Kayla Campana
University of Central Florida
Journalist, Lawyer, Suffragist
Helen Hunt was born on February 10th, 1889 in Oakland, Florida to Aaron Hunt and Lillian Gove. Hunt’s ambitions in life included an education, journalism, and law. She would achieve all three.
Hunt began her secondary education at the Stetson Academy. But Hunt would not finish her education there. Due to an accusation of hazing, Hunt was expelled from the college in 1907. Though she was expelled from Stetson, she did manage to complete her required course work in 1908 at the Florida State College for Women. However, she was unable to obtain her degree until 1933 when the issues raised by Stetson in 1907 were finally resolved.
Following the completion of her course work in 1908, Hunt became active in journalism. Her career began by writing for the St. Augustine Record. Later, she would write for the Florida-Times Union. During this time, she also studied law and in 1917 became the first woman admitted to the Florida Bar. She later joined the American Bar Association and the National Association for Women Lawyers as well.
The year 1917 marked Helen’s entry into the Florida Bar and was also the year she became an active member in the National Woman’s Party (NWP). She was inspired to join the Party thanks to Alice Paul. Paul became aware of Hunt’s dedication to women’s equality and, in 1919, asked for her help in securing the support of Florida State Representatives for the Nineteenth Amendment. Though she was able to get a total of fifty-five signatures from both House and Senate members, the Florida legislature did not ratify the amendment.
Despite this defeat, Hunt continued to support the NWP, even going to Washington D.C. in order to promote the amendment. After the final ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920, Hunt became the first woman registered to vote in Duval County, Florida.
Hunt continued her work with the NWP. During the course of this work for women’s equality, Helen married in 1927, the editor of the Florida Times-Union, Byron M. West. The two were married roughly twenty-five years, until her husband’s death.
West remained a strong feminist following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. First, she edited a number of publications that promoted equal rights for women, including the NWP's journal Equal Rights and Southern Club Women. Second, she became a well-known speaker, focusing her attention on women’s clubs. She utilized her knowledge of the law to make the point that women needed to be aware of their legal standing, which was limited at the time, in order to procure the change that was needed for women to gain more control over their own lives. And thirdly, Helen’s dedication to women’s rights led her into leadership roles, including second vice chairman of the NWP.
Until her death on January 26th, 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida, Helen continued her effort to get Florida to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, which only happened five years after her death. However, without the dedication and work that Helen put into the cause, the ratification may have never happened.
More information can be found in the Helen Hunt West papers, housed in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.