Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Helen L. McFarland, 1885-1980

By Tony Sheffey, undergraduate, Rosemont College

Helen L. McFarland was born in 1885 to John Horace McFarland, president of the American Civic Association, and Lydia McFarland in Harrisburg, PA. McFarland attended Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, where she was a member of the Pennsylvania Club as well as the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. While she never married or had children, she focused her suffrage work in central Pennsylvania. McFarland died in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania in 1980 and was buried at Harrisburg Cemetery.

McFarland was active in the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association (PWSA). In April of 1914, she accompanied president Mrs. Frank Roessing to the legislature to pressure congressmen during a roll call vote on the woman suffrage referendum. McFarland also went on record as publicly stating that women should oppose the war in Europe. However, although she herself felt free to take bold stands, McFarland, who was seen as conservative within her association, believed that the citizenry of Harrisburg would not react well to public spectacles, such as a suffrage parade.

In her secretarial report to the assembled delegates of the 1914 PWSA annual convention in Scranton, she highlighted the achievements of the suffrage referendum publicity campaign during the past year. She said, "Five million pieces of literature ... have been given out the last year.... Field work booths were established at 31 fairs and 279 speeches made to a total attendance of 1,230,600. The number of persons who signed our little yellow slips endorsing suffrage, was so great that no record could be kept." Another reporter noted the "striking yellow brocade costume" McFarland wore to a reception later at the conference. This color was indicative of her support for full woman suffrage.

In April of 1914, McFarland was promoted to Secretary of the State Suffrage Association's Executive Committee. McFarland also participated in an elite women's suffrage club in Harrisburg, presiding over the literature table at a country club bridge party and tea to raise funds for the cause in early 1915. And although she was able to use social status as a way to promote her political interests, she also continued to canvass for funds during a weeklong campaign. During this campaign, the women of Harrisburg continued to reject open-air lectures in favor of daily meetings at the Masonic Hall for those who wished to learn more about the suffrage referendum. Finally, by the following fall, the women had overcome this reticence and joined in a large crowd of 2,000, mostly men, to welcome the Suffrage Bell to their city.

Following the failure of the 1915 referendum, McFarland seems to have withdrawn from the suffrage movement. While working to pass voting legislation in the state for women, McFarland also volunteered for over three hundred hours with the Red Cross during the first World War. After the 19th Amendment was passed, McFarland remained active in many civic clubs and in the Methodist church. She began to focus her social involvement on future women voters. In the 1920's she became highly active in the development and cultivation of the Girl Scouts. She ran a troop at her church, developed Girl Scout camps, and served as Chairman of the Finance Committee. McFarland served on several committees and represented several local troops at national conventions throughout the 1920's.

Besides being a proponent for the Girl Scouts, she was appointed by Governor Pinchot in 1933 to the Board of Trustees of the State Industrial Home for Women in Muncy, Pennsylvania. But in 1935, McFarland became embroiled in a minor political scandal when Pinchot's successor, Governor Earle, requested that she resign along with other appointees.

McFarland's papers are held in the PHMC as part of her father's collection. She is mentioned in the book J. Horace McFarland: A Thorn for Beauty by Ernest Morrison.


Altoona Times, 22 April, 1914, p. 6.,, 00337?pid=240467289&backurl=,%2520Dauphin,%2520Pennsylvania,%2520USA%26msbpn%3D13708%26msbpn_PInfo%3D8-%257C0%257C1652393%257C0%257C2%257C0%257C41%257C0%257C822%257C13708%257C0%257C0%257C%26msfng%3DHorace%26msmng%3Dlydia%26catbucket%3Drstp%26uidh%3Dib1%26pcat%3D37%26h%3D240467289%26dbid%3D1265%26indiv%3D1%26ml_rpos%3D1&treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=bcO37&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true.

Harrisburg Sunday Courier, 28 March 1926, p. 9.,

Harrisburg Telegraph, 9 April, 1914, p. 1.,

Harrisburg Telegraph, 11 November 1924, p. 11.,


Koons, Glenn, "Helen L. McFarland." 23 April, 2009,,

The Scranton Truth, 24 November 1914, p. 8.,

The Wilkes-Barre Record, 7 October 1935, p. 1.,

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