Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Helen Dougherty, 1880-1976

By Leslie A. Schuster, Professor of History and Gender and Women's Studies, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island

Member, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party; Secretary, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; Socialist; Candidate for Rhode Island Secretary of State; Writer and Editor

Helen Dougherty was born as Mary Ellen Dougherty on July 24, 1880 in North Adams, a small town in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts. (Some official documents cite her birth year as 1884 or 1885 but the evidence for the 1880 date seems most reliable). She was one of six children of Mary Lannon and James A. Dougherty. Her mother was an immigrant from Ireland and her father held a variety of jobs in working-class jobs in mills and factories. Dougherty later explained that her family supported Socialism and that she grew up surrounded with those ideas and politics. The family moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, also in the Berkshires, where James Dougherty worked as overseer in the dyeing department of Peck Manufacturing. In Pittsfield, Helen Dougherty began her career as a socialist activist, serving as treasurer of a local socialist organization. She also belonged to the Sociological Club, where members met to discuss important social and economic issues in American society. In 1911, the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island where James Dougherty worked in manufacturing in Pawtucket; shortly after the move, he was killed in an altercation with another man. Following his death, the family remained in Providence where the oldest son, Francis. worked as an attorney and one daughter, Irene, earned a scholarship to Brown University.

Within a year of their move to Rhode Island, Helen Dougherty emerged as a prominent activist in Providence. The bulk of her work focused on promoting Socialism to workers and fighting for improved working conditions for working women. Dougherty began working as a writer and eventually became associate editor of The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island, a weekly socialist paper that covered local and national affairs. From 1912 to 1915, she reported and edited for the paper and wrote numerous articles championing socialism, suffrage, equal pay, public education, unions, and improved working conditions for working women. Her work brought her to socialist and suffragist circles and public forums where she addressed working women as well as owners of textile mills and department stores. One report also claimed that she worked as a special writer for the editorial staff of The Providence Journal, a prominent local newspaper.

In a more high-profile role, in 1912 Dougherty ran as the socialist candidate for the position of Secretary of State, the first woman to run for state-wide office in Rhode Island. Her campaign gained national attention and newspapers across the country ran stories about her. In an article about her candidacy, The Providence Journal noted that women were allowed to run for elective office even though they did not have the right to vote int the state. The newspaper also detailed how Dougherty's state campaign was connected to national efforts by the Socialist Party to support woman suffrage, to recruit more women members, and to elect more women to public office.

During the campaign, she explained her belief that Socialism was needed to improve the lives of working women. The Socialist Party, she claimed, would fight for women workers in numerous ways:

[to provide] better working conditions for woman; to give them shorter hours of labor, especially in the stores, which is laboring to emancipate her from night work; which is seeking to secure better sanitary conditions in the mills, which is endeavoring to enact and accrue the enforcement of laws which will make impossible some of the wrongs that work injury to women and innocent children; which declares that women will get the same wage, and that woman shall live decently and have a little left from their earnings for recreation.

Although she believed that industrial capitalist society was harmful to and exploitative of all workers, Dougherty claimed that "women are the greatest sufferers." The Socialist Party of Rhode Island nominated her to run again for Secretary of State in 1914 and 1916, although she was unsuccessful in all three campaigns.

Dougherty's earliest known public support for the woman suffrage cause was in 1912. She frequently discussed the importance of woman suffrage during her Secretary of State campaign. She also began attending events of local woman suffrage organizations, such as the College Equal Suffrage League. She later became a member of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party (RIWSP), which was founded in 1913, and the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, which was founded from a 1915 merger of existing organizations, including the RIWSP and the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association. Dougherty was unusual in the Rhode Island suffrage movement because of her working-class background, her status as a working woman, and her radical politics.

Dougherty's socialism inspired and informed her support of woman suffrage. She explained that "Every socialist believes in woman suffrage." Giving "women the right to vote," though, "is not going to settle any question pertaining to economics." Indeed, she asked, "how could this be expected, seeing that man, having for years had the ballot in his hand, has been unable under existing conditions and systems to work any changes for the better." Suffrage, for Dougherty, was necessary but not sufficient without Socialism for meaningful transformation of American society and women's lives. Similarly, she also argued that the socialist and labor movements were not enough on their own without woman suffrage and women's trade unions. She claimed that "The women must join with the working man at times, but the women must work for women, for the hardest part of the work is to be done by them." In 1915, Dougherty presided over a meeting of the Socialist Women's Committee of Rhode Island where the members unanimously passed a resolution in favor of suffrage for Rhode Island women.

Dougherty argued that the suffrage movement had to do a better job of reaching out to working-class women, that in the early twentieth century, working women were more sympathetic to socialism than suffrage and saw it a better solution to their suffering. She claimed that "socialism would pave a way to suffrage" for working-class women "because it recognizes woman's equality." For Dougherty, a suffrage movement that catered only to the middle class was "neither sound nor democratic." She explained that working-class women suffered greater hardship in American society and, therefore, needed the vote more urgently than middle-class women. Dougherty said that it was unreasonable to discuss the "indignity women have to endure by being deprived of the vote" when Rhode Island women working in factories, the jewelry industry, and stores labored under miserable conditions and suffered "the greater indignity of being deprived of health and youth and life."

Dougherty believed that suffrage should be a movement led by the masses, not the elite--that an elite suffrage movement would yield "the slowest and most barren of results." Instead, she argued for a grassroots approach, arguing "Woman's suffrage, like every cause that would strive for the betterment of humanity, can never succeed until...the sentiment grows, not from the top downward, but from the bottom upward." In The Labor Advocate, Dougherty claimed that suffrage and socialism necessarily intertwined "as the interests of the shop girl are different from those of the wife of the girl's employer." In fact, she posited that if women were able to raise their economic standing, "suffrage propaganda will be almost unnecessary," as the demand for political equality would follow naturally. In response to suffragist fears that labor and socialist organizations might jeopardize the support of factory owners for woman suffrage, Dougherty warned that the suffrage movement would soon have to make a choice about its direction. She hoped it would choose to prioritize the needs and interests of workers over the elite.

Despite her critiques of the suffrage movement, Dougherty spoke and wrote frequently in support of suffrage. She mocked those who opposed suffrage and believed that women's place was in the home, stating "If the home is her place, then why do the men fill the textile mills with women" who do "man's work but never for man's wages." On the eve of her first run for the office of the Secretary of State, she argued that women were the equal of men in all ways and that a "woman with ordinary intelligence could fill any of the offices held by men, and fill them just as acceptably."

As with many other suffragists, Dougherty embraced maternalist ideas about suffrage, that women voters would bring different and valuable perspectives to American politics. She claimed, "the natural gentleness and unselfishness of woman's nature will make her a more valuable voter in matters which affect the home, the child and the public health." She argued that electing women to public office would mean "fewer public scandals, fewer terrible example of depravity [and] of official dereliction" and more funding for libraries, schools and playgrounds. In particular, she believed that women voters would support temperance legislation that would stop the liquor industry from preying on poor people and neighborhoods. Women voters were especially important, according to Dougherty, for how their vote would help protect the home, which she believed was under assault from industry. She wrote, "A thousand enemies assault the home of to-day... [The home,] the most vital institution of civilization, is being wrenched from under it." Women should "join forces with a movement which would first of all place the home back on the foundation from which it has tottered."

Dougherty's most prominent work for the suffrage cause came in her speeches and writing. However, she supported the movement in other ways as well. In 1912, Dougherty participated in a suffrage debate with prominent local suffragists held at the College Equal Suffrage League, in which she represented the Socialist Party and its perspective on suffrage, Sara Algeo represented the Progressive Party, Elizabeth Upham Yates the Democratic Party, and Sara Fittz the Republican Party. In 1913, Dougherty led a "propaganda squad" to help distribute pamphlets about woman suffrage and to get signatures on petitions on woman suffrage to send to the U.S. Congress. The Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party held a high-profile annual bazaar to raise money and awareness for its suffrage activism and Dougherty assisted at its 1914 event. Also in 1914, Dougherty gave a speech on the value of trade unions for woman at a RIWSP meeting. In 1915, three Rhode Island suffrage organizations--the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, the College Equal Suffrage League, and the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party--consolidated their efforts and became the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. Dougherty was elected secretary of the new organization when it was founded.

In addition to her socialist and suffrage activism, Dougherty was also a passionate advocate for public education for working-class children. In 1915, she opposed a proposal by the Providence school system for military training in the schools. For Dougherty, "Schools should provide [children] the ability to think and reason and to develop individual initiative" so they have options other than unskilled labor. She believed that working-class children should have a "chance to look up and down and all round at life, instead of straight ahead at some imaginary point, [and learn to] read to obey, but unable to reason." She also argued that the schools should add more classrooms so 1,300 Providence children without access to education could be schooled, provide training for disabled children and manual and industrial training. Dougherty viewed education, Socialism, and suffrage as all significant for making the United States a more democratic and equitable society.

As World War I waged on in Europe, Dougherty supported the peace movement. She wrote a scathing essay in The Labor Advocate titled "Why This War?" in which she described the war as "crude and brutal" and that "thousands of men are mowed down and left to rot on blood-soaked meadows" to benefit corrupt governments. In 1915, Dougherty joined the newly-formed Rhode Island branch of the Women's Peace Party and served on its membership committee.

For reasons that remain unclear, Dougherty left Providence in 1917 and relocated to New York City where she lived with Robert F. Hunt, the editor of the Providence Labor's Advocate, who worked as a printer. She does not appear to have been politically active in New York and instead focused on what she later described as her real passion--writing. She also supplemented her income with office work. In a 1922 essay in The Editor: The Journal of Information for Literary Workers, whose audience was fellow writers, she explained that the move, funded by $50.00 earned from writing a "two reel moving picture," fulfilled a lifelong desire. She reported that she had wanted to become a writer since the age of ten when she found that the book she was reading, George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, was missing the last few pages. This "compelled" her to write her own endings, "gathering up the loose ends with elaborate ceremonies and much pink satin." In the article, she downplayed her time as associate editor of the Labor Advocate, explaining that it sounded "much more important than it really was but I had a glorious chance to write out all my burning protests against injustice." Her writing career did not take off and though she wrote several short stories only one was published and her writing career did not take off. Funding for the movie did not materialize. In the 1930 and 1940 censuses, Dougherty was still living in New York City with Robert Hunt and listed her employment as writer. No other information could be found about her life, activism, or writing after 1940. Helen Dougherty died in New York in May 1976.


"Miss Helen Dougherty," The Providence Sunday Journal, November 3, 1912. John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI.


"Candidate of the Socialists," The Evening Sun (Baltimore, MD), July 26, 1912.


Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922). [LINK]

Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow and Farnham Co., 1925).

"Will Spread Socialism among the Working Girls," The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA), February 20, 1912.

"Former Local Young Woman a Nominee," The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA), July 8, 1912.

"Nominate A Woman for State Office; Socialists Name Helen Dougherty for Secretary of State," The Providence Journal, July 8, 1912.

"Woman on State Ticket," The Washington Post, July 8, 1912.

"Candidate of the Socialists," The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), July 26, 1912.

"Two Working Class Candidates," TheLabor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 1, No. 2 (September 8, 1912), 1.

"Miss Dougherty Addresses Equal Suffrage League," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 1, No. 9 (October 27, 1912), 4.

"Miss Dougherty, Candidate for Secretary of State, Asks "Why Not?," The Providence Journal, November 3, 1912.

Helen Dougherty, "Am I My Sister's Keeper?" The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 1, No. 29 (March 16, 1913), 1, 4.

"Suffragists Coming To-Morrow," The Providence Journal, July 16, 1913.

"Public Education," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 2, No. 1 (November 2, 1913), 4.

"Helen Dougherty Addresses the Consumers' League," Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 2, No. 12 (November 16, 1913), 1.

"Consumers League of Rhode Island," The Providence Journal, November 25, 1913.

H.D., "Among Women," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 2, No. 46 (July 11, 1914), 4.

Helen Dougherty, "From the Socialist Viewpoint," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 2, No. 47 (July 18, 1914), 4.

Helen Dougherty, "Why This War?," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 2, No. 50 (August 8, 1914), 4.

"Value of Woman's Trade Unions," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 2, No. 50 (August 8, 1914), 1, 4.

"Miss Helen Dougherty Addresses People's Forum," The Providence Journal, August 17, 1914.

Helen Dougherty, "The Difference a Vote Would Make," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 3, No. 1 (August 29, 1914), 4.

Helen Dougherty, "Ignorance or Willful Slander," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 3, No. 3 (September 2, 1914), 4.

Helen Dougherty, "Comrade Helen Keller," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 3, No. 10 (October 3, 1914), 4.

"Socialists Select Complete Tickets, The Providence Sunday Journal, October 11, 1914, 5.

"A Candidate of the Workers," Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 3, No. 9 (October 24, 1914), 1.

"Got Good Vote in Recent Election," North Adams Evening Transcript (North Adams, MA), November 10, 1914.

Helen Dougherty, "Mouthpiece of Mammon," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 3, No. 13 (November 21, 1914), 3.

"Suffragists Open Three-Day Bazaar," The Providence Journal, December 4, 1914.

Helen Dougherty, "Suffrage and Economic Organization," The Labor Advocate: Newsletter of the Socialist Party of Rhode Island 3, No. 16 (December 12, 1914), 4.

"Rhode Island Socialists Observe Woman's Day," The Providence Journal, March 1, 1915.

"Women Suffrage Societies United," The Providence Sunday Journal, May 2, 1915.

"'Peace Day' Plans Include Schools," The Providence Daily Journal, May 6, 1915.

"To Address Suffrage Meeting," Providence Journal, March 1, 1916, 13.

Helen Dougherty, "A First Story," The Editor: The Journal of Information for Literary Workers 8, No. 500 (1922): 4-5.

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