Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Helen Z. M. Rodgers, 1876-1960
By Madhu, Associate Professor, University of Delhi
Helen Zaidee Marie Rodgers was born to James H Rodgers and Zaidee McMillan Rodgers in Homersville (now Homell), New York, on August 20, 1876. She was born in an affluent family and attended Gardner School and St. John School in New York city. Helen married Albert Rodgers, ten years her senior, at the age of 20, in 1897 and almost simultaneously entered the Buffalo Law School. A woman of many dreams, She was very successful at law school, and won the Clinton Scholarship for the highest standing in her class. She along with Cecilia B. Wiener became the first women graduates of the Buffalo Law School in 1899. Cecilia and Helen wrote letters in support of each other though they lived in the same city. In one such letter Helen talks about how she told her husband before marriage that she will retain full liberty of action. She walked the talk and, instead of being known as Mrs. Rodgers, she retained her own name and a career after marriage. In 1901, she became the first woman to argue an appeal in the New York State Court of Appeals, in the case of McGuire v. Bell Tel. Co. of Buffalo. Helen was vocal about the cause of earnings of married women because women had no rights over their own earnings. In 1902 she wrote an article 'Married Women's Earnings' in the Albany Law Journal, which has been cited many times since it was first published.
After her daughter Zaidee was born in 1903, Helen balanced "domesticity" with her profession, which she thought was possible if one works diligently. In 1907, New York State gov. Charles E. Hughes appointed Rodgers to the Board of Managers of the Western House of Refuge for Women, in Albion. A year later she became president of the Women Workers' Suffrage League. The cause of women suffrage was close to her heart and she tried to educate women on the benefits of suffrage and in 1917 became Chairman of the Educational Committee of the Erie County Suffrage Association of the Commonwealth Club, before whom she argued that women should not be intimidated by their husbands in their voting, a problem many foresaw. Her speech in 1920, at Jamestown on the anniversary of Susan B Anthony's birth shows her closeness to women suffragists and their rights.
Her career at the Bar was growing and in 1920 she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in International Bridge Co. v. People of State of New York. In 1938, she was appointed Chair of the Committee on Suffrage and Qualifications for Office in New York state. Helen also pushed for a women's right to sit on juries, arguing that "it would be a good thing-if only to protect the men. You know, if a young, pretty and flirtatious woman is concerned in a suit, the men often decide the case with little regard to justice." In 1949 the Business and Professional Women's Club named her as Buffalo's Outstanding Business Woman in recognition of her many years of outstanding achievements and unselfish devotion in women's issues and public life. She died on 1 August 1960 in Erie County, New York.
Christine Vidal , "Sisters in Law," on the Global Health Equity website of the University of Buffalo. Accessed online at https://www.buffalo.edu/globalhealthequity/news-events/upcoming-events/annual-global-innovation-challenge/global-innovation-challenge--2017.host.html/content/shared/www/news/private/1999/10/4424.detail.html