Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Helen M. Barker, 1834-1910
By Liz Almlie, Historic Preservation Specialist, South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office, Pierre.
Helen Morton Barker was born in Richland, New York on December 8, 1834. Her father was a physician and scientist, and her mother a teacher. Barker taught school in Oswego, New York and, in 1853, married Reverend Moses Barker, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Friendship, New York. In 1879-1881, Barker served as an officer of the Allegheny County (NY) Woman's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) and state lecturer and organizer for New York W.C.T.U. The Barkers moved to Huron in Dakota Territory in the early 1880s. With her experience in New York, Helen Barker served as president of the Dakota W.C.T.U. from 1884 through 1890.
Barker began her work for women's suffrage in Dakota when the Franchise Department of the Dakota W.C.T.U. presented petitions to the territorial legislature in Bismarck in 1887. At the 1889 territorial legislature in Bismarck, she worked with Alice Pickler and Philena Johnson in advocacy work and was invited to speak in the session for the bill. After the new state constitution in 1889 called for a public vote on suffrage, Helen Barker was one of the featured speakers at Woman's Day of the 1889 state fair and presided over the first suffrage convention in South Dakota, held in Huron on October 21, 1889. At the organization of the state Equal Suffrage Association (S.D.E.S.A.) during the convention, Barker took the position of state lecturer and organizer. Her husband, Rev. Barker, was elected secretary. With the S.D.E.S.A. and W.C.T.U., Helen Barker traveled between settled areas of the new state speaking on suffrage at home meetings, at fairs, and public lectures, and organizing local suffrage clubs. Despite strong disagreements among campaign leaders about the wisdom of connecting suffrage and temperance advocacy, Barker "stayed doggedly loyal to both organizations." When the leadership was reorganized in the summer of 1890, Barker stayed in a position on the executive committee of the new S.D.E.S.A.
In 1890, Barker was one of two women from South Dakota appointed by President Cleveland to the board of "lady managers" for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, serving as its Superintendent of the Industrial Department, chair of Committee on Auxiliary Work, and compiling information on all women's organizations around the country. She gave the main oration at the dedication of Willard Hall, the headquarters of the W.C.T.U. in Chicago in 1893. In July 1894 she spoke in favor of woman suffrage at the Lake Madison Chautauqua. In 1894, Barker was elected treasurer of the National W.C.T.U., having been "one of the hardest workers, one of the ablest speakers, and one of the most conscientious promoters of the cause of the union in the West" according to historian George W. Kingsbury of Yankton, S.D. She served in that position until 1905. The Barkers had moved to Evanston, Illinois in the 1890s, and Helen passed away in Evanston in May 1910, described by The Standard (Chicago) as "a woman of brilliant mind. Kind of heart, she was firm for the right."
A photograph of Barker can be found in Julia K. Weisgram, "Dakota Images: Helen M. Barker," South Dakota History 37(3) (2007), 270; and John S. Minard, A Centennial Memorial History of Alleghany County, New York (Alfred NY: W.A. Fergusson & Co., 1896), 203.
Black Hills Union (Rapid City SD), Aug. 8, 1890, p.4.
Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1910, p.7.
Dakota Farmer (Huron SD), Nov. 1889, "Page 66 : Entire Page," Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), Washington State Library, Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10, http://primarilywashington.org/items/show/14796.
Ellis, C.H. History of Faulk County, South Dakota. Faulkton SD: Record Print, 1909, pp. 228, 236.
"Helen M. Barker," sketch in History of South Dakota website, accessed online at https://historysouthdakota.wordpress.com/womens-suffrage-in-sodak/biographies-of-womens-suffrage/helen-m-barker/
"Helen M. Barker (1834-1910)," #172954426, Rosehill Cemetery and Mausoleum, Chicago. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/172954426.
Hot Springs (SD) Star, May 23, 1890, p.3.
Johnson, Rossiter. A History of the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1897, pp.213, 224.
Kimball (SD) Graphic, Oct. 31, 1890, p.3.
Kingsbury, George W. History of Dakota Territory. Vol. III. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1915, pp. 486, 488, 769.
Minard, John S. A Centennial Memorial History of Alleghany County, New York. Alfred NY: W.A. Fergusson & Co., 1896, pp. 199-202, 719.
Rock Island (IL) Daily Argus, Jan. 9, 1893, p.4.
Ross-Nazzal. Jennifer M. Winning the West for Women: The Life of Suffragist Emma Smith DeVoe. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 2011, pp.56.
The Standard, Vol. 57, no. 38 (Chicago, May 21, 1910), p.26.
Sturgis (SD) Advertiser, Aug. 14, 1890, p.1.
The Union Signal, Nov. 7, 1889, "Page 09 : South Dakota -- Equal Suffrage Work," Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), Washington State Library, Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10, http://primarilywashington.org/items/show/14295.
Weisgram, Julia K. "Dakota Images: Helen M. Barker." South Dakota History. Vol. 37, no. 3 (2007), 270.
Wittmayer, Ceclia M. "The 1889-1890 Woman Suffrage Campaign: A Need to Organize." South Dakota History Vol. 11, no. 3 (1981), 205-218.