Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Ellen Dorcas Harn, 1829-1930

By Leeann Hesson, Staff Librarian, Marshall University

Trailblazer for Women's Education


Blackwell, A. S. & Catt, C. C. (eds.). "Flying high at ninety," The Woman Citizen, 4:23 (Dec. 27, 1919), p. 635.

Ellen Dorcas Harn was born on January 18, 1829 in West Falls, Maryland to John Harn II and Charlotte Hay Harn. Ellen passed away in Kenesaw, NE on April 30, 1930 at the age of 101. Ellen was a family historian and left a rich account of her life and work.

As a child, Ellen enjoyed school and learning - even striving to continue learning after her mother had declared her too old to remain in school. To help her continue her education, Ellen's sister Sarah, a teacher at Cedar Hill Female Seminary in Philadelphia, agreed to cover the cost of attendance. Ellen entered the Seminary in 1849 and graduated in spring of 1852. She would return the favor five times over as later she supported the education of two of her younger sisters and three of her nieces.

After graduation, Ellen taught in various schools and holds the distinction, along with her sister Corilla (another suffragist), of being the first women public school teachers in Frederick County, Maryland. She also attained the position of preceptress of West Virginia College in Flemington for a time and later was principal of Flemington Public School. Later, she took a position in Barton, Maryland and was steadily promoted. After working there for eight years, the trustees suggested she should assume the principal position. Ellen, however, did not pursue the promotion, as she would not have been paid a man's wages for the same amount of work.

As a mid-nineteenth century female educator, Ellen admitted that she began teaching believing the stereotypes about girls' ineptitude with math. Through her experiences she was proven wrong and inflamed a principal who was disgusted that the girls in her class were doing better than the boys. Ellen stated that she strived to be impartial with her teaching methods, fearing she would overcompensate by neglecting the boys in favor of encouraging the girls. In December of 1885, Ellen stepped down from her position in Barton, Maryland to run the Kenesaw School in Nebraska where her sister lived. She fully retired from teaching in 1888.

Ellen greatly enjoyed writing and wrote a column in the Kenesaw Citizen for six years, mainly on the topics of temperance and suffrage. When writing of the suffrage movement in her biography, Ellen described an instance where she was so impassioned with the election of 1898 that she demanded to be allowed to vote. She was refused but found great amusement at the bewilderment and anger that her demand incited. In reflecting on her support of equal suffrage she commented, "I am much of a crank as was ever Abigail Adams or John Randolph. Ever since I was eleven years old I have never been able to understand why I should hand over my earnings for men to spend, and I forbidden to say how it should be spent."

In 1919, at the age of 90, Ellen was the oldest known woman to fly in a plane. Rather than being fearful of flying she was concerned that she would never get the chance to see an airplane and was offered a ride when she did see one for the first time. There is more than one version of this story. In one she "released a banner saying, 'Votes for Women'" while flying over the town of Kenesaw, NE. In another version, the owner of the plane would not allow her to wave a flag with a suffrage pennant while in the air but the pilot, Mr. Creeth, dropped it while flying. One way or another, she expressed her support for woman suffrage


Blackwell, A. S. & Catt, C. C. (eds.). "Flying high at ninety," The Woman Citizen, 4:23 (Dec. 27, 1919), p. 635. New York: The Woman Citizen Corporation.

"Nebraska Historical Society Article About Ellen D. Harn's airplane Flight," accessible online at

Harn, Ellen D. Manuscript of the Harn Family, 7 July 1996,

"Miss Ellen Harn is dead at age of 101." The Lincoln star. 30 Apr. 19,

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