Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Helen Varick Boswell, 1869-1941
By Thomas Wirth (lecturer) and Joseph Nuzzi (student), State University of New York at Cortland
Chairman, Woman's National Republican Association; Chairman, Woman's Republican Association of New York State; Founder, West End Women's Republican Association; Committee chair, General Federation of Women's Clubs
Helen Varick Boswell was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 6, 1869. Her parents, Marriott Boswell and Emily Johnson (Tuttle) Boswell, were active members of the Democratic Party in Baltimore. After a stint in the Baltimore City House of Delegates during the 1860s, Marriott Boswell was elected clerk to the Baltimore City Board of Police Commissioners in 1870. His tenure ended abruptly in 1881 after it was revealed that he embezzled police funds for private gain. The Boswells originally arrived in Baltimore from Virginia, where the family's roots stretched back to the decades before the American Revolution. Marriott's great-grandfather, Captain Machen Boswell, served the Continental Army in Virginia from 1776 to 1781. Helen Varick Boswell completed her early education at Friends' Seminary in Baltimore, but at sixteen moved with her family to New York City. In 1902, she earned a law degree from the Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C.
Like her parents, Boswell took an interest in politics, but turned away from her family's traditional loyalties to the Democrats. Finding the Republican Party more receptive to women's political activism, Boswell got her first taste of political work as editor of the Literary Bureau of the Woman's National Republican Association (WNRA) during the 1892 presidential campaign. She went on to organize Republican women's clubs around New York State, emerging as an effective lecturer and stump speaker. Boswell built a close relationship with WNRA president J. Ellen Foster, who viewed party politics as an important arena for women to engage social reform issues, if not to lobby for women's voting rights. Both Boswell and Foster would face criticism from suffragists over their support for a Republican Party that consistently kept the suffrage question at an arm's length distance. The women maintained unwavering allegiance to the Republican Party at a moment when many American reformers, including suffragists, championed the virtues of political non-partisanship or third party alternatives such as the Populist or Prohibition parties. From Boswell's perspective, however, women's disenfranchised position in the United States made party identification a necessity—a way for women to demonstrate their political maturity and their aptitude for politics. As Boswell once noted, "Women have ever been partisan" and "[a]ll healthy, intelligent persons are partisan by nature."
During the 1890s, Boswell distinguished herself as a leader among Republican women in New York. She was named chairman of the Woman's Republican Association of New York State in 1895. Later that year she was selected from 149 New York delegates as the only woman to attend the annual meeting of the National League of Republican Clubs. By 1897, the New York Herald recognized Boswell as the "head of the Women's Republican movement in New York." Perhaps Boswell's principal achievement as an organizer was the launch of the West End Woman's Republican Association (WEA). Founded in 1894, the association grew into the most "widely known" of all political clubs in New York City. The WEA, as well as other permanent women's political clubs Boswell helped organize, aimed at strengthening social bonds among women in the city. Among their many tasks, the clubs held social gatherings, arranged debates, discussed election tactics, and offered women strategies to coax neighborhood men to the polls. The clubs were not suffrage organizations, typically sidestepping the issue of voting rights, and instead emphasized party loyalty. WEA by-laws warned that it was against the organization's "design to attempt any diversion of [its] work or influence to such reform movements as temperance [or] woman suffrage." The clubs nevertheless had an important civic role to play in the city, enticing more men to cast ballots and encouraging more women to find a voice in municipal politics and movements for reform, including efforts to topple the corrupt Democratic machine at Tammany Hall.
In the summer of 1898, with the Spanish-American war raging in Cuba, Boswell took up war relief work in Washington, D.C. as a volunteer for the Washington Committee of the Red Cross. After her return to New York, she led the state Republican women's campaign to elect Theodore Roosevelt governor. Referring to Roosevelt's gubernatorial bid, Boswell told the New York press, "even if we [women] did sometimes differ with his methods we always believed in his motives, and women love an honest man." Boswell's devotion to Roosevelt was later repaid during his presidency. Roosevelt's secretary of war, William H. Taft, directed Boswell to the Panama Canal in the fall of 1907 to invigorate the bleak social conditions prevailing among the 8,500 Americans quartered in the Canal Zone. Boswell's mission was to bring the women's club idea to the isthmus, "provid[ing] recreation and social intercourse for the wives and daughters of American employees." Over the course of a month in September and October, she laid the groundwork for the development of nine women's clubs, the first of which, formed in Cristobal, enrolled 35 members. Club affiliation grew rapidly in the Canal Zone, with total memberships doubling just six months after Boswell's departure. Boswell returned to the Canal Zone in 1911 to compile a report for President Taft on social conditions in the region.
Boswell resumed an active political life upon return from her initial visit to Panama, supervising women's activities for Republicans at the national level and traveling the country with Ellen Foster as a top speaker for the party. After Foster's death in 1910, Boswell filled her mentor's position as WNRA president and chairman of the Woman's Bureau for the Republican National Committee (RNC). In 1912 and 1916, Boswell went on to lead, respectively, the Association's campaigns for presidential candidates Taft and former New York governor Charles Evans Hughes. Boswell continued to hold various positions in the Republican Party through the 1920s and 1930s, including as associate director of the Women's Speakers Bureau for the RNC and as vice chair of the Republican County Committee of New York County. She also earned a bid as a delegate to four consecutive Republican National Conventions between 1920 and 1932. In 1928, Calvin Coolidge rewarded Boswell's long service to the party when he chose her to represent the United States Commission at the 1929 International Exposition in Seville, Spain.
Helen Varick Boswell constructed an impressive resume as a Republican political operative during her lifetime. As one historian observed, Boswell's dedication to the GOP made her "the consummate party woman, subordinating everything to loyalty to the Republican Party." Her career, however, amounted to more than a pursuit of Republican electoral victories. Indeed, she maintained a visible presence in national reform movements. Between 1908 and 1910, Boswell served as chair of the Industrial and Child Labor Committee and the Industrial and Social Conditions Committee of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC). In 1913, she published a pamphlet on "Women and Prison Labor" for GFWC, urging club women to advocate for an end to the contract system of prison labor. Boswell also held membership in the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was a strong supporter of the franchise despite her reluctance to challenge her party's ambivalent position on women's suffrage.
For her accomplishments as a leader and pioneer in the women's club movement, Boswell was awarded a gold medal from the New York City Federation of Women's Clubs on February 6, 1941. She died less than a year later, on January 5, 1942, at the age of 72.
[Boswell's age at the time of her death was widely misreported as 78.]
- John W. Leonard, Woman's Who's Who of America (New York: American Commonwealth Company, 1914), 115. [LINK]
- Lineage Book: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, XXXI, 1900 (Harrisburg, PA: Telegraph Printing Co.: 1910), 222.
- Jo Freeman, "‘One Man, One Vote; One Woman, One Throat': Women in New York City Politics, 1890-1910," American Nineteenth Century History 1 (3) (Fall, 2001), 101-23. http://www.jofreeman.com/polhistory/nycpol.htm
- Jo Freeman, We Will Be Heard: Women's Struggles for Political Power in the United States. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 29-35.
- Jo Freeman, One Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 40-41, 69-71.
- Melanie Gustafson, Women and the Republican Party, 1854-1924 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 80-82, 187.
- "Women Working for Roosevelt," New York Press, October 5, 1898.
- "Activities of Women in the Zone," Canal Record, 6 (40) (May 28, 1913), 338.
- "Club Women in the Canal Zone on Isthmus of Panama," Buffalo Courier, March 20, 1909.
- "Miss Boswell is Dead at 78," New York Sun, January 6, 1942.
- "Helen V. Boswell, Suffrage Leader," New York Times, January 6, 1942, 23.
- Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, The Part Taken By Women in American History (Wilmington, DE: Perry-Nalle Publishing Co., 1912), 420-21.
- Helen Varick Boswell, Women and Prison Labor (New York: National Committee on Prison Labor, 1913). https://archive.org/details/womenprisonlabor00bosw
- Helen Varick Boswell, "Promoting Americanization," The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science 64 (1) (March, 1916), 204-09.
Citation: Bain News Service, Publisher. Miss Helen Varick Boswell. , . [No Date Recorded on Caption Card] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014687723/.