Although the benefits of voting may be obvious to us today, in the 19th century, during the long campaign for women’s suffrage, there were many people, both men and women, who opposed it. One of the more prominent anti-suffragists was Helen Kendrick Johnson, an author, poet, and activist, whose book, Woman and the Republic, was considered one of the best summaries of arguments against suffrage, at least by those who were opposed. In it, she argued that women didn’t need the vote to gain equality and that their role in the “domestic sphere” was essential to maintaining the American republic.
Born in Hamilton, New York on January 4, 1844, Helen was the second daughter of Asahel Clark Kendrick, a professor of Greek at the University of Rochester, and Anne Elizabeth Hopkins Kendrick. Her mother died in childbirth when Helen was seven years old and much of her childhood was spent moving between her father’s home in Rochester and relatives, including the home of her aunt in Clinton, New York, who cared for her three sisters, and occasionally an uncle in Savannah, Georgia.
Helen attended Miss Doolittle’s school when she was living with her father, and much of her education probably came from him. He wanted her to be a Greek scholar, but she wanted to be a writer, and in 1863, she enrolled at the Oread Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts to pursue that goal. The Oread was one of the oldest institutions of higher education for women in the country. Founded by Eli Thayer in 1849, it’s program was modeled after Brown University. There Helen developed close relationships with her professor and Principal of the Institute, Dr. Robert E. Pattison, his wife, and daughters. She considered Mrs. Pattison the “ideal house-mother” and felt secure and welcome in their home, perhaps experiencing real family life for the first time.
After her time at Oread, Helen returned to Rochester where she met her future husband in the spring of 1867. Rossiter Johnson had studied and graduated at the University of Rochester under Helen’s father. That spring a walking club was organized which included professors and their families and friends. According to Johnson, these were times of pleasant and humorous companionship where the chaperones gave the young people space to get acquainted. During one of these times, Rossiter took the opportunity to say “the wisest and most important thing I ever have said in my life.” By this, I assume, he meant a proposal of marriage, because on May 20, 1869, they were married in Helen’s home by her father.
Rossiter Johnson graduated from the University of Rochester in 1863 and went on to earn both Ph.D. and LL.D. degrees. From 1864 to 1868, he also worked as an editor at the Rochester Democrat, a Republican newspaper and in January, before they were married, he moved to Concord, New Hampshire to become the editor of the Statesman.
After their wedding, they set up housekeeping in Concord and Helen began her writing career starting with short stories and Bible studies. Her stories were written for children and published in the Statesman and various magazines. Her first major success was a series of three books called The Roddy Books. The first in the series, Roddy’s Romance, was written as a contest entry, and although it didn’t win the prize when published in book form it was an immediate success.
Around this time, their first child, Laurence, died. He was the first of three out of four children who would die before the age of two. After his death, Helen compiled a collection of poems related to the loss of children. This theme would touch other books which she wrote for families, such as Tears for the Little Ones.
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Helen’s focus was on her children and family life, as well as writing related books. Remembering her time with the Pattisons, she began collecting songs appropriate for family time. This evolved into a major project which she published as Our Familiar Songs and Those Who Made Them. The book was 600 pages long and contained 309 songs with words, music, the history of the song, and brief biographical sketches of the authors and composers. It was a great success. Published in September 1881, at the time of her death in 1917, when Rossiter wrote his tribute to her, it had not been out of print.
Beginning in 1894, Helen edited the American Woman’s Journal which had been founded in 1889 by Mary Foot Seymour. Women submitted articles on many different subjects, one of which was women’s suffrage. Prior to this she had given little thought to the issue, so she began to research it. Of course, she published the articles whether she agreed or not, but she felt that she needed to address the issue.
Helen wanted to see progress for women, to see women able to advance and work in different fields, but she thought this could be achieved without the right to vote. She began her research with the three volume history written by Susan B. Anthony that described the movement so far, and went on to read many other articles and essays. She found the suffragist’s arguments to be “illogical and unworthy,” and said, “I cannot see the slightest possibility that through the ballot woman can secure one right which she does not at present possess.”
The result of her research was the book titled, Woman and the Republic: A Survey of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and a Discussion of the Claims and Arguments of its Foremost Advocates, published in 1897. It was well-received, at least in anti-suffrage circles, praised for its “calm” and analytical tone, and became a valuable tool for those of that persuasion. There were also critical reviews and many articles written finding flaws in her information and reasoning.
In spite of the fact that Helen supported women working, she was a firm believer in the idea that women should devote themselves to the “domestic sphere,” maintaining the home, caring for children, and working for causes which supported it. To promote this idea, she began to work to support the anti-suffrage cause, writing articles, speaking before groups and the legislatures in both Albany and Washington. In 1912, she founded the Giudon Club for the purpose of discussing political questions and for “active but dignified and effective work against suffrage.”
But time takes its toll and Helen suffered from hardening of the arteries. As she slowed her pace, she spent her last years on Long Island supervising the construction of two cottages she had designed. One of these, named Thalatta, became their summer home where she would spend time writing her final work. It was a companion volume to Woman and the Republic titled Woman’s Place in Creation. Just weeks before her death, she finished the last chapter and arranged the photos for the book.
Helen Kendrick Johnson died January 3, 1917. Her husband and their daughter Florence accompanied her body to Rochester, New York, where she was laid to rest beside the three children she had lost too soon.
Helen Kendrick Johnson: Her Desire to Stay the Same by Danielle Hillriegel, Utica College (pdf)
Helen Kendrick Johnson (Mrs. Rossiter Johnson) The Story of Her Varied Activities by
Rossiter Johnson (at internet archives)
Woman and the Republic by Helen Kendrick Johnson