Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Helen McGaffey Searles, 1856-1936
By Sam Haddad, student, Mt. Holyoke College
A ‘Democratic Air' at Mount Holyoke College: The Life of Suffrage Activist Professor Helen McGaffey Searles
Helen McGaffey Searles was born in Barre, Canada, on February 10, 1856, to Henry Rogers and Delia A. (McGaffey) Searles. On April 15, 1936 she passed away suddenly at the age of 80 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Searles attended Lake Forest University from 1890 -1894 where she studied Classics. Following her time at Lake Forest, Searles spent a year at Cornell pursuing graduate study, and then completed her PhD at the University of Chicago in 1898. Searles proceeded to teach Classics at the Pennsylvania College for Women before finding her way to Mount Holyoke College, where she would teach Latin starting in 1899. Searles would ultimately work her way to being the Chair of the Classics Department. Searles worked at the college until her retirement in 1922 but would remain affiliated with Mount Holyoke as a Professor Emerita until her death in 1936. In addition to inspiring women within the classroom space at multiple women's colleges, most notably Mount Holyoke, Searles enjoyed taking walks, traveling and reading Dante and Petrarch.
Although she taught Latin in the Classics Department at Mount Holyoke, Searles was empowered to work towards women betterment outside the classroom environment through the fight for women's suffrage. Mount Holyoke was alive with both confidence and ambivalence toward granting women the vote. However, the tide was starting to change with the arrival of the turn of the century, right when Searles joined the college faculty. Searles was most notably present at the Boston Equal Suffrage Meeting on March 23,1907. There, Searles represented Mount Holyoke College, faculty, and their students in discussing women's suffrage with representatives of every other women's college in the state. These included fellow Seven Sisters, Smith and Wellesley College. She was recognized at the meeting for her role as a professional collegiate woman trailblazing in the suffrage movement.
Searles made a clear and obvious dedication to her faith in the power of women's education and its ability to transform women into intelligent and conscious individuals. Her time spent at the Pennsylvania College for Women and Mount Holyoke shows her commitment to the belief that women's educational spaces were conducive of raising women's awareness to the possibilities outside of the realm of traditional domesticity. Searles embodied many of the characteristics she believed were prevalent in the Mount Holyoke student body: self-reliance, intelligence, passion and the strong conviction they could ‘hold their own' both in the academic and political realm. Searles believed that there was a ‘democratic spirit' in the air at the college, and she advocated for herself and these women to be represented in conversations and debates surrounding government policy and the elected officials who created them.
Harper, Ida Husted, et al. The History of Woman Suffrage, Volume VI: 1900-1920. Vol. VI. New York: J.J. Littles & Ives, 1922. [LINK]
Helen Searles Mount Holyoke College Personnel File. Archives and Special Collections, Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.
Mount Holyoke Historical Atlas, "Votes for Women": Ambivalence to Activism in the Women's Suffrage Movement at Mt. Holyoke College, 1900-1920." Accessed November 5, 2017. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hatlas/suffrage/index.htm.
Leonard, John William. Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915. The American Commonwealth Company: New York, 1915. [LINK]
Searles, Helen McGaffey. "Mount Holyoke College Alumnae Association Meeting." Speech, MA, South Hadley, June 1900, Archives and Special Collections, Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.
"A Tribute to Helen Searles." Speech, New England Classics Association Meeting, Western Massachusetts, Archives and Special Collections, Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.