Change often came slowly to the South, but it often arrived with a whirlwind of effort pushing it along. Helen Stoddard, a force of nature unto herself, became a leader in the state with her efforts to defeat alcohol and promote women’s equality. Stoddard became an early professor and pursued a host of causes across Texas, including child welfare, women’s education, food safety, prohibition of alcohol, and women’s suffrage. Her stubborn mindset, coupled with a sharp intellect and fiery sermons galvanized legislators and public opinion at the turn of the century. Along the way, Helen Stoddard became one of the co-founders of what is now Texas Woman’s University and one of the first women to run for Congress.
Helen M. Gerrels was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, off Lake Michigan, in 1850. Church was an important part of her early life. She was a bright and exceptional child and attended Ripon College, a church-based college preparatory institution as a young woman.
She enrolled at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in New York and excelled at her studied. She graduated from the seminary as head of her class in 1873. It was there that she met her future husband, S. B. Stoddard, and the two married shortly after graduation and moved to Nebraska. They had two sons, but their happiness soon dissipated. One son died in infancy and her husband’s health collapsed. The family moved to Florida, believing the warm climate would save his failing health. However, his condition deteriorated, and he died in 1878.
Her parents had moved to Hamilton County, Texas, in 1877, and with a young son to raise, Stoddard moved to Texas to join them. She began teaching school and soon set up a Sunday School in Indian Gap. In 1885, Stoddard began teaching at the now-defunct Fort Worth University, a college associated with the Methodist Episcopal Church.
She soon became interested in the prohibition movement, convinced of the serious harm that alcohol did to families and marriages through health issues, financial ruin and violence in the home. She was elected president of the Texas Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1891, and took on the cause of combating alcohol full-time. She went across the state recruiting members and speaking to different organizations. She successfully lobbied legislators to pass a slew of laws aimed at protecting children and public health in the 1890s, including laws mandating that public school students be taught the dangers of alcohol, banning over-the-counter sales of cocaine, restricting mail delivery of alcohol to dry counties, banning child labor in factories, raising the age of consent for girls from 12 to 15, and banning the sale of cigarettes to children under 16.
Stoddard also lobbied for the opening of a state women’s college. In 1901, the legislature agreed to create the Girls’ Industrial College though there had been great opposition to college education for women. Stoddard was named to the board of regents, the first woman in Texas to serve on the governing body of any Texas state college. The board selected Denton as the site of the new college, which opened in 1903. Stoddard continued to serve as the college changed its name to the College of Industrial Arts (it became Texas Women’s University in 1957). At the college’s dedication, Stoddard noted, “Economic independence will allow them to build their lives upon intelligent choice.”
She also became an advocate for giving women the right to vote, believing it would help the cause of women’s education and the fight against alcohol. The strain of her schedule overwhelmed her, causing a series of health problems. She stepped down from her roles with the WCTU and the college board in 1907. She moved to California to be near her son and his wife.
As her health recovered, Stoddard began getting involved once again. Women won the right to vote in California in 1911, and Stoddard immediately led a caravan of 40 women to become the first women in San Diego County to register to vote. But women had yet to win the vote nationwide. In 1912, she ran for Congress from the new 11th Congressional District, which included the San Diego area. She represented the Prohibition Party and ran on a slogan of “A vote for Stoddard is a vote for the home.” However, she finished fourth with 8.3% of the vote, far behind the victor, Democrat William Kettner. In the process, she became the first woman to run for Congress in the history of the state and one of the first to run anywhere.
She resumed teaching at a local high school after the election. Stoddard continued to hold temperance meetings in her home, trying to help attendants end their drinking and smoking through her fiery sermons. She organized a local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was elected head of the statewide organization. She continued to push for both women’s suffrage and the total prohibition of alcohol. After World War I, she saw the ratification of constitutional amendments banning alcohol and giving women the right to vote, though Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Her health began failing again by the 1930s. After her only remaining son died in 1935, she returned to Texas with her daughter-in-law and settled in Brownwood. Stoddard died in Dallas in December 1940 at age 90.
Ken Bridges is a historian, writer and native Texan. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.