Biographical Sketch of Helen Cooper (Mrs. W. W.) Douglas

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Helen Cooper (Mrs. W. W.) Douglas, 1880-1965

By Alan Selsor, Berkeley, CA

Activist in the 1911 California Equal Suffrage Campaign

"Mrs. W. W. Douglas says that man has been keeping woman in cold storage. If so, she has retaliated by making things fairly warm for many men."

This brief comment appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 8, 1911. The editors surely believed that readers would not only recognize the speaker but also recall her words as quoted in the previous day's paper.

Californians were then debating a ballot measure on equal suffrage, scheduled for October 10. The measure would pass – making California the sixth state to give women the vote – but that outcome had been far from certain. Helen Cooper Douglas – always referred to as Mrs. W. W. Douglas – was celebrated as a skillful orator in service to the cause.

Helen Douglas had spoken on June 6 to an audience of 2,000 at San Francisco's Scottish Rite Temple. The event was one of many organized by the California Equal Suffrage Association, the main suffrage advocacy group in the northern half of the state. Helen was not the only speaker that evening, but her words alone were quoted extensively in the next day's Chronicle. Helen's oration was described as "replete with cleverly worded witticisms directed against the arguments that have been advanced against woman suffrage."

"'Man has kept woman in cold storage so long that he is afraid to take her out of it for fear she will spoil," she is quoted as saying. "'Man does not perform any characteristically masculine feat in going to the polls. He does not leap any trenches, he does not face any yawning guns, nor does he do one single thing that any woman on earth in sound health and mental vigor cannot perform.'"

In a challenge to her male listeners, she invoked the pioneers: "'Women helped you cross the plains, they helped you plow the virgin acres, they helped you cross the unsailed seas, and they dug the furrow for you as deep as you did yourself, and you did not call it unwomanly, then where lies the justice in calling the ballot unwomanly? We ask you to give us something more substantial than bridge and matinees to live for.' "

"Bridge and matinees" was a fitting rhetorical flourish for an audience unlikely to be much experienced with plows or furrows. The Chronicle reporter described: "Beautiful faces, beautiful gowns, and an assortment of the city's representative men. . . . so picturesque as to be not at all like the popular prejudice concerning the scenic aspect of a gathering in this cause. . . . The atmosphere of an exclusive social function prevailed."

Maria Helen Elizabeth Cooper was born on October 5, 1880 in Virginia City, Nevada. She was the second of three children in the family of Thomas and Mary Cooper. Thomas had been born in England; Mary in Ireland. The family later settled in Oakland, California. Helen received a bachelor's degree from the University of California in 1902, and then accepted a teaching position in Portland, Oregon. Marriage in 1909 would bring her back to the San Francisco area. On the day of the wedding, the bride was 29 and the groom 47.

William Wallace Douglas had been assistant postmaster in San Bernardino, California; executive secretary to a California governor; and deputy comptroller for the state. More recently, he had become a banking executive in San Francisco. William would eventually be a vice president, director of personnel, and board member for the predecessor to today's Bank of America.

The couple settled in Berkeley. Helen joined the local chapter of Association of Collegiate Alumnae, which advocated opportunities and equality for women. Her rhetorical skills were soon in use – as when, for example, she spoke in the affirmative in a debate, "Resolved, that the trend for university education for women should be vocational, not cultural." The birth of a daughter, Katherine, did not interrupt her activities. By May 1911, she was president of the local chapter, and speaking for suffrage in Berkeley, San Francisco, and perhaps other locations.

In the years immediately following the equal suffrage ballot, Helen's activism took many forms. She spoke on "Labor Legislation for Women in California and Elsewhere"; addressed state legislators; served on the board of managers for the Baby Hospital Association of Alameda County; campaigned for Woodrow Wilson's reelection; and was a rare woman who volunteered to be a "four-minute man" speaking in support of U.S. participation in World War I.

She remained active in the American Association of University Women (as the Association of Collegiate Alumnae was renamed in 1921), as well as the League of Women Voters, Foreign Affairs Section. She also participated as a faculty member for the Institute of International Relations, a summer program then offered by Mills College, Oakland.

William Wallace Douglas died in 1940. Helen eventually left the large house she and William had built, moving into a modest mid-century home in Berkeley's Greenwood Common. The Common was a small experimental community of residents sharing a central green. Helen Cooper Douglas died at her home in Berkeley on December 9, 1965.

Photos of the subject found in 3 different newspaper articles; see Notes


San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 1911, p. 6.

"Equal Suffrage Rally Fills Every Seat in the Scottish Rite Temple," San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1911, p. 11

"Bank Cashier to Become Benedick," San Francisco Call, June 27, 1909, p. 17. [PHOTO]

"Many to Address Federated Clubs," San Francisco Call, February 14, 1910, p. 8.

"Suffrage Leaders Would Reform Berkeley," Oakland Tribune, June 24, 1911, p. 7.

"Equal Suffrage League to Give Annual Luncheon," San Francisco Chronicle, June 28, 1911, p. 2. [PHOTO]

"Topics in Women's Clubs During the Week," San Francisco Examiner, February 25, 1912, p. 31.

"Women to Meet Lawmakers," San Francisco Examiner, March 3, 1913, p. 3. [PHOTO]

"To Dedicate New Babies' Hospital." Oakland Tribune, September 9, 1914, p. 9.

"All Parties' League to Hear Mrs. Douglas," San Francisco Examiner, October 23, 1916, p. 5.

"Berkeley Woman '4-minute' Man," Oakland Tribune, August 26, 1918, p. 13

"Douglas Rites Will be Today," Oakland Tribune, December 15, 1940, p. 7.

"Helen Cooper Douglas, Ex-Mills Dean, dies at 85,"Oakland Tribune, December 9, 1965, p. 15.

"Douglas Services Pending," San Francisco Examiner, December 10, 1965, p. 71.

University of California: Graduates 1864-1905 (Berkeley: University of California, 1905).

Summer Session for Men and Women (Oakland, CA: Mills College, 1948).

Modern Living: A Biography of Greenwood Common (Berkeley: University of California, College of Environmental Design, 2009).

United States Census Bureau, 10th Census, 1880 (Virginia City, Storey County, Nevada).

California, Voter Register, San Bernardino County, 1886.

United States Census Bureau, 12th Census, 1900 (Oakland, Alameda County, California).

United States Census Bureau, 13th Census, 1910 (Berkeley, Alameda County, California).

United States Census Bureau, 14th Census, 1920 (Berkeley, Alameda County, California).

Helen Cooper Douglas, United States Passport Application, San Francisco District, July 25, 1924

William Wallace Douglas, United States Passport Application, San Francisco District, March 26, 1925.

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