Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Helen Emerson, 1889-1971
By Emily Esten, Graduate student, Brown University
President, College Equal Suffrage League of Rhode Island; Vice President, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association
Helen Emerson was born on May 15, 1889, in Dorchester, Massachusetts to Lowell and Annie Emerson (Pierce). The family moved to Providence, Rhode Island when she was one year old. Lowell Emerson was a prominent manufacturer, serving terms as president of the Rhode Island Cardboard Company of Pawtucket, RI and the West Dudley Paper Company of West Dudley, MA. Emerson graduated from the Lincoln School, a private girls' school in Providence and then earned an A.B. in Physics and Biology from Bryn Mawr College in 1911 and an A.M. in Physics from Brown University in 1916. She also attended the University of Göttingen as a student of Physics from 1912 to 1913.
Emerson was an active participant in the Rhode Island suffrage movement of Rhode Island. Most notably, starting while she was a graduate student at Brown, Emerson served as President of the College Equal Suffrage League (CESL) of Rhode Island from 1913 to 1917. Her earliest reported involvement was attending a Rhode Island suffrage meeting in 1912. As a member of CESL, Emerson published leaflets and hosted speakers to raise awareness for the suffrage cause. She was a principal worker at three-day suffrage bazaars to raise money and awareness for the cause in 1913 and 1914. There were several different suffrage organizations in Rhode Island in 1914 during Emerson's presidency. The Equal Suffrage Council was implemented in 1914 to try to coordinate the groups' suffrage efforts. Emerson served as secretary for the council.
In 1915, there was a more formal merger of three organizations—the College Equal Suffrage League, the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, and the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party—into the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association (RIESA). As president of the CESL, Emerson helped oversee the merger and then assumed an officer role in RIESA, serving as first vice president. During her tenure, she also served in the following positions for at least one term: chairman of the Committee on Programs, chairman of the Co-Operative Service Committee, and member of the School Work Committee.
As a member and officer of CESL and RIESA, Emerson participated in many different activities to support the suffrage cause. She helped start new suffrage leagues across the state. Emerson coordinated many of the invited guests to speak on various civic, moral, and social issues, including protective labor laws and temperance initiatives. She also gave speeches on woman suffrage herself, including a 1915 for the Providence Woman's Christian Temperance Union and a 1917 RIESA one on “Some Important Bills Passed by the Legislature.” In 1915, Emerson and other members of the Rhode Island movement marched in a suffrage parade in Massachusetts. She served as a Rhode Island delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1915 and 1917 in Washington, D.C. Emerson engaged in political lobbying for RIESA, meeting with Henry F. Lippitt, U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, to try get his support for a plank supporting suffrage in the Republican state platform. She helped run a suffrage booth at the 1917 “Pure Food Fair,” a large and high-profile food exposition run by Rhode Island Women's Clubs and various food and grocery associations. In 1917, she was appointed to the executive committee of the New England Woman Suffrage Association.
The Rhode Island legislature granted women the right to vote in presidential elections on April 18, 1917. The Providence Journal interviewed Emerson on this occasion and she said, “It is splendid that the men of Rhode Island have actually come forth and done it. I don't know what more to say except for that of course I'm delighted.” After the passage of presidential suffrage, RIESA administered petitions across the state to encourage congressmen to support a federal suffrage amendment. Emerson was responsible for canvassing the first congressional district of Rhode Island for petition signatures.
In addition to her suffrage work, Emerson participated in a number of other organizations and causes that had close ties to the suffrage movement. One of these was the women's peace movement. In 1915, the CESL hosted a speech on “War and Women” by Rosika Schwimmer, secretary of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and a noted pacifist from Hungary. Emerson introduced Schwimmer at the event and hosted her at her house. When a Rhode Island branch of the Women's Peace Party was founded in 1915, Emerson served on its general council. Emerson was also a long-time member of the Rhode Island League of Girls' Clubs, an organization to assist working-class women and girls. She was a member of the Rhode Island Branch of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae and served as its chair for educational legislation in 1915. In addition, in 1915, she served on the board of directors of the Immigrant Educational Bureau, an organization affiliated with the Union for Christian Work in 1915. The bureau supported and offered Americanization efforts for foreign-born residents.
During World War I, RIESA worked to support the American war effort. This war work reflected the National American Woman Suffrage Association's strategy to use women's volunteerism during World War I to gain support for woman suffrage. Despite her involvement with the peace movement, Emerson helped support the war effort. In 1917 she was appointed by RIESA to the executive committee of the Rhode Island branch of the National League for Women's Service. In announcing Emerson's appointment, Mrs. Barton P. Jenks, RIESA president, stated that “The Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, being in hearty accord with the National League for Women's Service, has tendered its co-operation and aid in any way.” She continued that she thought RIESA could be helpful in “taking the women's census [for war work] through its branches and auxiliaries in all the cities and towns of the state.” Emerson also as served as vice chairman of the women's committee of the Council of National Defense in Rhode Island and member of the committee of the War Work Council of the National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association. Emerson gave speeches encouraging Americans to buy war bonds; in a speech to a women's group about war work, she stressed the importance of women's support for the war. She told the audience, “We must do more than our bit—we must do our utmost, to help win the war.” At Emerson's family home, she and her friends reportedly gardened seven hours daily to support food conservation efforts. More dramatically, she volunteered for war support work overseas. Emerson served in the American Red Cross Canteen Service as a member of the Bryn Mawr unit in France assisting Allied forces from 1918 to 1919.
Following her service overseas, she returned to Providence in 1919. By 1920, she started an apple orchard business with her friend, Maude Chace on Emerson family land in Emerson. They spent ten weeks at the Massachusetts Agricultural College to learn farming techniques. They did most of the work themselves, relying on friends for help and intended to hire only women as workers. In an article by The Providence Journal, they explained, “We do it because it is healthful, outdoor work, and because we like it, but more because it is a sort of fundamental industry that we think ought to be encouraged.” They also said that they wanted to show that “female hands would not be less able than those of ‘men folks,' even at work that required lifting and climbing.” In the fall of 1922, Emerson married and stopped working at the orchard the following year; several of her single women friends kept the business going.
After the passage of the woman suffrage amendment in 1920, Emerson became active in the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, which emerged out of the suffrage organizations. She chaired a committee to raise funds for the Anna Howard Shaw Memorial fund to endow foundations in preventive medicine and women in politics. She chaired a 1924 committee on the legal status of women that recommended the league should work to end common law marriage and to create a legal requirement for a health certificate before marriage. In 1922, she gave a speech on behalf of League of Women Voters on “Legislation Women Are Interested In” at a Working Girls' Club. She remained active in the League of Women Voters for the next several decades. In the 1940, she served as an election supervisor.
Emerson married Dr. Peter Pineo Chase on September 23, 1922. The couple had no children and lived in Providence. Chase was a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Medical School, had served during World War I as a captain in the Army Medical Corps, and worked as a surgeon in Rhode Island. Like Emerson, he had served in France during the war. He wrote a health column for The Providence Journal and served as president of Rhode Island Medical Society. The Emersons were prominent in the Providence community and belonged to the First Unitarian Church.
Drawing on her agricultural experience, she was a founder of the Rhode Island Federation of Garden Clubs and served as president in the 1930s. She chaired the education committee for the League of Girls' Clubs and served on the board of the Providence YWCA in the 1930s and on the board of the Providence Animal Rescue League in the 1950s. She was president of the Handicraft Club. She supported causes related to Bryn Mawr, serving as a Rhode Island representative for the college and chaired the Rhode Island committee for the School for Women Workers in Industry at Bryn Mawr.
As she had in World War I, Emerson engaged in war work during World War II. She served as director of volunteer workers at Rhode Island hospital, where her husband worked, in 1940s; the volunteers were critical for maintaining hospital services during the war. She served president of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1960s and was the long-time chair of its children's concert committee.
Besides their busy professional and philanthropic duties, the Chase participated in strenuous outdoor activities. Helen Emerson introduced her husband to her hobbies of skiing and mountain climbing. The couple wrote an article on “mountaineering” in the Providence Journal in 1948. They explained that, “The challenge of matching one's ability against difficult pitches; the camaraderie of camping and toiling and sharing possible dangers; the exaltation of attaining the summit, sometimes in a brilliant calm, often amid threatening but wildly beautiful clouds...these help make up the lure of climbing.” Continuing a lifetime of adventure, Helen Emerson skied the Swiss Alps at age sixty-six, saying that she “wasn't the least dismayed by the steeper pitches. The doctor and I were used to them.” She continued skiing into her mid-seventies. Peter Chase died in 1956. On May 3, 1971, Helen Emerson Chase died of cardiac arrest and was buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI.
Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922), 569. [LINK]
Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925), 177, 186, 244, 245.
"1920 United States Federal Census," database with images, Ancestry.com, Helen Emerson, Providence Ward 2, Providence, Rhode Island, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 189, sheet 35B, NARA publication T625_1678 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982.)
"1930 United States Federal Census," database with images, Ancestry.com, Helen Emerson, Providence, Providence, Rhode Island, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 0126, sheet 3A, NARA publication T625_1678 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 2175; FHL microfilm 2,341,909.
"Chapter 38, Rhode Island." In History of Woman Suffrage: 1900-1920, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ida Husted Harper, 571. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1922. [LINK]
"Massachusetts Births, 1841-1915," database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FXW6-J16 : 1 March 2016), Helen Emerson, 15 May 1889, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts; citing reference ID #196, Massachusetts Archives, Boston; FHL microfilm 1,428,243.
Ancestry.com. Web: Rhode Island, Historical Cemetery Commission Index, 1647-2008 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. Original data: Gravestone Search. Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission. http://www.rihistoriccemeteries.org/webdatabase.aspx: accessed 12 November 2015.
Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Bulletin 12, No 8 (November 1932): 28.
Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Bulletin 13, No 7 (July 1938): 41.
Bryn Mawr College Calendar Register of Alumnae and Former Students 15, part 1 (1922): 38.
Bryn Mawr College Calendar: Register of Alumnae and Former Students 8, part 1 (1920): 73. 1920.
Frank L. Gryzyb and Russel J. DeSimone. Remarkable Women of Rhode Island (Charleston: The History Press, 2014).
“New England Officers Chosen,” The Woman's Journal 48, No. 20 (May 19, 1918), 117.
“Lowell Emerson,” The Boston Globe, January 28, 1950.
Justina Leavitt Wilson, ed., Handbook of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Proceedings of the Jubillee Convention, 1869-1919, Held at St. Louis, Mo., March 24-29, 1919 (New York: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company, 1919), 294.
Harvard Alumni Bulletin 25 (1922): 51.
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925; Roll #: 623; Volume #: Roll 0623 - Certificates: 44000-44249, 07 Nov 1918-08 Nov 1918
Register of the Births, Marriages and Deaths, Providence RI. 22, pt. 1, (1932): 192.
Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association records, 1868-1930. Rhode Island State Archives, Providence, Rhode Island.
The Brown Alumni Monthly 15, no. 1 (1914): 15.
The Catalogue of Brown University One Hundred And Fiftieth Year, 1913-1914. Providence, RI: Brown University, 1913: 188.
Nancy O'Brien Wagner. "Awfully Busy These Days: Red Cross Women in France During Minnesota History (Spring 2012): 24-39.
“Equal Suffrage Council Holds Its First Meeting, The Providence Journal, December 19, 1914.
“Appeals to Women to Help Stop War,” The Providence Journal, March 25, 1915.
“Women at Brown Form a Peace Party,” The Providence Journal, April 13, 1915.
“‘Peace Day' Plans Include Schools, The Providence Journal, May 6, 1915.
“Governor Beekman, Prominent Woman Suffrage Workers and General Assembly Leaders Land Passage of Bill by Rhode Island Legislature,” The Providence Journal, April 18, 1917.
“Woman Suffrage Passes R.I. House,” The Providence Journal, April 18, 1917.
“Equal Suffrage Society To Aid Woman's Service,” The Providence Journal, May 1, 1917.
“Ward Six Women Form Committee for Defence,” The Providence Journal, December 6, 1917.
“Two Rhode Island Women Make Old Orchards Pay,” The Providence Sunday Journal, May 1, 1921.
“Women Voters End Two-Day Sessions,” The Providence Journal, October 8, 1924.
“There's a Career for Women in Apple Orchards,” The Providence Sunday Journal, September 12, 1926.
Helen Emerson and Peter Pineo Chase, “Mountaineering,” The Providence Sunday Journal, June 27, 1948.
Robert L. Wheeler, “Dr. Peter Pineo Chase Dies Unexpectedly, The Providence Journal, April 24, 1956.
Frank C. Matzek, “The Skiing Life,” The Providence Sunday Journal, December 14, 1969.
“Mrs. P.P. Chase, Widow of Health Columnist, Dies,” The Providence Journal, May 5, 1971.