Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Helen Wilson Starbuck, 1883-1925
By Patricia Kidd, MSLS, Independent History Researcher and Nancy Alexander Simmons, Fairfax Station, Virginia
Woman Suffrage Activist
Helen B. Wilson was born October 25, 1883, in Marengo, Iowa to Marion Stacy Wilson and Helen Bell Williams Wilson. In 1900, her father appears as an inmate in the Iowa Hospital for the Insane in Mt. Pleasant. She delivered the valedictory address when she and her brother, who were close in age, graduated from the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home school in Davenport, Iowa, in 1896. In September 1901, she entered the State University of Iowa--now the University of Iowa--and attended classes for about a year. She later worked in Des Moines, Iowa, as a secretary for Rev. Mary Safford [LINK to bio sketch], who was a Unitarian minister and leader in the woman suffrage movement. In 1909, when Safford spent the winter in Orlando, Florida, she brought Helen Wilson with her as her secretary. They had spent the winter vacationing in England and Scotland. Helen was like a daughter to Mary Safford. By the spring of 1911, Helen Wilson had married Victor Stanley Starbuck, who was an attorney in Orlando; they had one daughter, Helen Mary Starbuck.
In April 1911, Helen Wilson Starbuck authored an editorial entitled "Anent Woman Suffrage," in which she agreed with a previous editorial that said a suffrage defeat in Massachusetts would make women more determined. She extoled the suffrage wins in Washington, California, Kansas, Oregon, and Nevada, as well as other legislatures where a majority, but not a two-thirds majority, support had been shown. She also mentioned suffrage successes in other countries. She concluded by saying, "Never before in the history of the cause have such wonderful strides been made as in the past year."
In February 1912, Starbuck authored another editorial taking issue with a previous editorial on woman suffrage that characterized "mere voting as an insignificant detail." She said women considered it very significant and that many have had to fight those in power to gain the right to vote throughout history. She asked, "Why are some men so anxious to withhold the ballot from women if it is so insignificant?" She went on to say "All native or naturalized adults in the United States are entitled to the vote except WOMEN, IDIOTS AND CRIMINALS." And she questioned why woman suffrage opponents place women on the same level as convicts.
In February 1913, Starbuck was one of the women who organized the Equal Suffrage League of Orlando. She was elected its first corresponding secretary. About 40 women participated in the meeting, among them was Rev. Safford, who was the president of suffrage league in Des Moines, Iowa. In April 1913, Starbuck and Safford attended a session of the state legislature, where she spoke on behalf of the suffrage movement. At the May meeting, Safford reported that they had expected to have a private meeting with members of the House of Representatives; but they found the "entire hall crowded with listeners" who received the suffrage message enthusiastically. A legislative vote was taken immediately, but it resulted in a tie. Starbuck hosted the July meeting of the suffrage league in her home.
In October 1913, the Equal Suffrage League of Orlando made its first demand for suffrage. After the mayor announced that all freeholders were required to register for a bond election, Starbuck, along with Emma Hainer, gathered several women who owned valuable property and went to the city clerk's office. They announced that they had come in response to the mayor's call to register for the coming election. The clerk referred them to the mayor, who referred them to the city council, which referred them to the city attorney. There they were told that the law did not permit women to vote. Their actions caused a discussion on women's right to vote.
In December 1913, the Florida Equal Suffrage Association started hosting "fellowship" teas to spread the word about the organization. At the first tea, Starbuck participated in a skit in the part of "Mrs. Doubtful," who was against suffrage. Another suffragist played the part of "Mrs. Absolutely Sure," representing a woman who was "firmly convinced of the right of every woman to help direct the affairs of the nation." In the end, of course, Starbuck's character was convinced of the merits of suffrage.
Starbuck began 1915 by writing another editorial on suffrage directed at state Congressman Frank Clark, who said he was against woman suffrage. Among her statements was this one: "If, as Mr. Clark confidently asserts, women already direct the destiny of the men, what harm can there be in its being done frankly and openly by the ballot?" She concluded by saying, "It is only a matter of a few years until the women of the United States will have the privilege of voting; and we prophesy that woman, with wider outlook and wider interest, will be even more proficient than before in her position of wife and mother." The same month, she once again was elected corresponding secretary of the Orlando Equal Suffrage League. In November 1915, the league began efforts to "secure an amendment to the city charter granting municipal suffrage to women." This effort was eventually successful, allowing women to vote in local elections before they could vote in state or national ones. At the same meeting the league decided to join the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs and appointed a committee to arrange a suffrage booth at the mid-winter fair. News articles indicate that Starbuck continued to be active in the local league during 1916 through her participation in suffrage teas.
Starbuck died of tuberculosis on October 27, 1925, in Asheville, North Carolina, where she had moved because of her health; she is buried there in the Riverside Cemetery.
1900 U.S. Census, Iowa. Center, Henry County, p. 10, Enumeration District 0029. Digital images. Ancestry.com.
"Anent Woman Suffrage." Orlando Evening Star (Orlando, Florida), April 20, 1911, p. 4.
"Congressman Clark Challenged on Woman's Suffrage Speech." Orlando Evening Star (Orlando, Florida), January 21, 1915, p. 1.
"Enthusiastic Meeting of Equal Suffrage League." The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida) January 14, 1915, p. 5.
"Fellowship Tea was a Novel Entertainment." The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida) December 20, 1913, p. 8.
Find a Grave, database. Memorial page for Helen Wilson Starbuck, https://www.findagrave.com.
Harper, Ida Husted, et al., eds. The History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. VI (1900-1920). N.p.: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922, p. 114. [LINK to FL state report]
"Interesting Meeting of Suffrage League." The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida), May 15, 1913, p. 5.
"Mrs. Starbuck Calls Attention to Influence of Women's Vote Against Divorce." Orlando Evening Star (Orlando, Florida), January 21, 1915, p. 1.
"Orlando League Begins Its Work." Pensacola News Journal (Pensacola, Florida) November 7, 1915, p. 6.
"Orlando Women for a Suff Organization." The Tampa Times (Tampa, Florida), February 27, 1913, p. 11.
"Orphans' Home Graduates." The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa) June 4, 1896, p. 2.
"Reporter-Star Correspondence." Orlando Evening Star (Orlando, Florida), February 12, 1912, p. 5.
"Revival Meeting Has Good Crowds." The Weekly Tribune (Tampa, Florida), December 9, 1909, p. 9.
The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida), April 20, 1913, p. 5.
The Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), July 13, 1913, p. 18.