Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Helen Brewster Owens, 1881-1968
By Tarez Samra Graban, Associate Professor, Department of English, Florida State University
Brief Biographical Descriptors: Faculty, Wells College, Cornell University, and Penn State University; Member, American Association of University Women; Member, Sigma Alpha Epsilon; Member, Pi Mu Epsilon; Member, Mathematical Association of America; Member, American Mathematical Society; Member, New York State Suffrage Association; Member, National American Woman's Suffrage Association; Member, Woman's Christian Temperance Union; Member, Daughters of the American Revolution; Woman's Centennial Congress.
Helen Barten Brewster was born April 2, 1881 in Pleasanton, Kansas, to Robert Edward and Clara Linton Brewster. She graduated from the University of Kansas with her B.A. in mathematics in 1900, the youngest member in her class, and earned her M.A. in mathematics the following year ("Helen"). From 1901 to 1904 she taught mathematics at Lawrence high school while continuing her graduate studies at UK, marrying a fellow student, Frederick William Owens in 1904. Thereafter, she moved to Chicago and gave birth to their first daughter, Helen Brewster Owens in 1905. Both Brewster Owens and her husband began doctoral study at the University of Chicago, but she did not complete her degree until 1910 under the direction of Virgil Snyder at Cornell University, where her husband had joined the mathematics faculty in 1907.
The record of Brewster's reform activity begins in 1893 when, at the age of twelve, she accompanied her mother, Clara, to a county fair to distribute temperance literature by Frances Willard (Leonard). As both an educator and president of the Linn County (Kansas) Women's Suffrage Association (Riddle), Brewster's mother had significant influence on her own career, but it wasn't until 1909 that Brewster Owens would marry suffrage work with higher education, and for the next 40 years, she would do so in significant ways. Shortly after receiving her Ph.D. in mathematics, Brewster Owens was elected chairman of the Resolutions Committee of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA) ("Helen"). While teaching mathematics as Cornell's University Preparatory School, she was named an Officer of the Political Study Club of Ithaca ("Helen"). In 1911, she organized the College Equal Suffrage League at Cornell. In 1937, she chaired a national study group on the "Evolution of Present Status of Women," helping to organize the September meeting of the American Mathematical Society and Mathematical Association of America, as well as the Sigma Delta Epsilon lunch for women at Penn State University ("Helen"). The study involved two questionnaires, one conducted in 1937 and another in 1940, sent to women in mathematics and the sciences in order to commemorate the contributions of women pioneers in those fields at a historic luncheon at Penn State University (Riddle), to submit a record of their accomplishments at the 1940 Woman's Centennial Congress, and ultimately to submit copies of their work to the World Center for Women's Archives. She retired in 1949, at the rank of assistant professor of mathematics at Penn State University, and died on June 6, 1968, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, survived only by her second daughter Clara, and her grandson.
Most of her archival tracings during this period occur in the "Papers of Helen Brewster Owens, 1867-1968" collection at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Much of that archival record is centered around her involvement in the New York and Kansas suffrage campaigns, including several campaign stints for Kansas suffrage from 1911–1912 at the request of Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (Caldwell 304), and her three-year stint as a paid organizer and chairman of the Sixth District of the Empire State Campaign Committee from 1913–1916. During that campaign – one of twelve organized throughout New York state – Brewster Owens was promoted as a "well known" headlining speaker on Equal Suffrage at a Franklin, NY lecture in July 1913 ("Broadside"). She also helped to organize a Woman Suffrage Conference and School in February 1914 ("Votes"), in conjunction with the sixth annual Homemakers' Conference at Cornell's Farm and Home Week ("Broadside"), and campaigned to pass the suffrage amendment in the state of New York (Riddle).
Partial archival records are beginning to surface, and Brewster Owens is also referenced in several digitized broadsides in the Delaware County, N.Y. Woman Suffrage Collection at Cornell University Libraries, primarily citing her local activities promoting Prohibition alongside suffrage, and among the ranks of "Suffrage mothers" affiliated with the university as alumnae or mothers of alumnae. She has also been represented in some Owens correspondence in the Mary Winston papers of the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts ("Helen"). Brewster Owens's editorial career, beginning in 1911 when she was Press Work chairman of the NYSWSA and punctuated by a yearlong stint as Associate Editor of American Mathematical Monthly in 1935, is documented in Biographies of Women Mathematicians. And finally, as her father was a ninth-generation descendant of Eltweed Pomeroy, she also appears in The History of Genealogy of the Pomeroy Family (Pomeroy), associated with other "American developments" in Pomeroy's English lineage.
"Broadside Announcing a Lecture by Harriet May Mills and Helen B. Owens in Franklin, N.Y., 1913." July 1913. Delaware County, N.Y. Woman Suffrage Collection. Cornell University Libraries, Ithaca.
Caldwell, Martha B. "The Woman Suffrage Campaign of 1912." The Kansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1943, pp. 300-326. https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-historical-quarterly-the-woman-suffrage-campaign-of-1912/12944. Accessed September 15, 2019.
"Gallant American Women." Old Time Radio Downloads. https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/historical/gallant-american-women. Accessed August 1, 2019.
Green, Judy, and Jeanne LaDuke. Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 PhD's. American Mathematical Society, 2008.
Goodier, Susan, and Karen Pastorello. Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State. Cornell UP, 2017.
"Helen Brewster Owens Papers." Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. Biographical notes by Bert Hartry.
Leonard, John William, editor. Woman's Who's Who of America, 1914–1915. American Commonwealth Co, 1914, pp. 615-616. [LINK]
Pomeroy, Albert A. Part Three: History and Genealogy of the Pomeroy Family: Collateral Lines in Family Groups. Normandy, Great Britain, and America Comprising the Ancestors and Descendants of Eltweed Pomeroy from Beaminster County Dorset England 1631. 1922. Kessinger P, 2008.
Riddle, Larry. "Helen Brewster Owens." Biographies of Women Mathematicians. 2016. https://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/owens.htm. Accessed April 25, 2019.
Rogers, Mary. "State College Woman Fought in First Ranks of Battle for Equal Suffrage," The Center Daily Times (August 25, 1960).
"Votes for Women: Woman Suffrage Conference and School, Sixth Campaign District of New York, February 9th to 13th, 1914, Ithaca, N.Y. Program, 1914." February 1914. Delaware County, N.Y. Woman Suffrage Collection. Cornell University Libraries, Ithaca.