Agnes Scott College

Helen Brewster Owens

April 2, 1881 - June 6, 1968


Helen Barten Brewster was born in 1881 in Pleasanton, Kansas, the daughter of Clara (Linton) and Robert Edward Brewster. Her mother, a teacher, was president of the Linn County Women's Suffrage Association. Helen's first interest in women's suffrage started when, as a small child, she accompanied her mother to the 1893 County Fair. At the fair she helped her mother distribute copies of a picture of Frances Willard, then a leading woman in the temperance movement, with her "political peers," groups of disenfranchised men. As Helen remarked in a newspaper interview in 1960,

I couldn't help inherit the vital interest for equality for women from my mother who took time from her household duties and teaching to get petitions signed and to talk to women's groups and others on the women suffrage movement way back then.

Brewster received her B.A. degree from the University of Kansas in 1900 and her master's degree in mathematics the following year. Her master's thesis was on "Collineations of space which leave invariant a quadric surface" and was a continuation of work of Ruth G. Wood. While continuing her graduate studies at the University of Kansas, she also taught mathematics at the high school in Lawrence, Kansas. In 1904 she married her fellow student and mathematician, Frederick William Owens. They moved to Chicago where her first daughter, also called Helen, was born in 1905.

Both Helen and Frederick continued graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Frederick received his Ph.D. in 1907 and the family moved again, this time to Ithaca, New York, where Frederick joined the mathematics faculty at Cornell University. In 1908, a second daughter, Clara, was born. During this time, Helen also resumed her graduate work at Cornell and finally received her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1910 with a dissertation on "Conjugate line congruences of the third order defined by a family of quadrics" [Abstract] under the guidance of Virgil Snyder.

The intermittent mathematical career of Helen Owens spanned a period of almost 40 years. From 1910 to 1912 she taught mathematics at the University Preparatory School in Ithaca. Then in 1914 she became an assistant professor of mathematics at Wells College in Aurora, New York. After teaching there for three years, she was hired by Cornell University as a mathematics instructor, a position she held for five years. In 1926 Frederick Owens was appointed head of the mathematics department at Pennsylvania State University, so the family moved to State College, Pennsylvania. In 1935 Helen was appointed an associate editor of the American Mathematical Monthly. Between 1941 and 1949 Owens taught at Penn State University, reaching the rank of assistant professor.

Helen Owens other "career" was fought in the first ranks of the battle for equal suffrage. Following in the footsteps of her mother, she began her suffrage work around 1909. In 1910 she was elected a chairman of the Resolutions Committee of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association. In 1911 she returned to Kansas to campaign "for an ideal in which I firmly believed." She spoke to all kinds of civic and community groups and rallies about the women's suffrage program. Soon after her return to Ithaca, she was asked by Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association, to return to Kansas as her personal representative. Owen remained in Kansas until November 1912, speaking in 96 of the 105 state counties. The voters of Kansas passed the suffrage amendment by 16,000 votes, the greatest majority given to the amendment by any state up until that time.

From 1913 until 1915, Owens worked for the passage of the suffrage amendment in the state of New York. During this campaign her husband and daughter were hurt in an accident while riding in a Votes for Women car. The amendment was defeated in New York in 1915, but Carrie Chapman Catt led a second campaign that won the necessary votes in that state in 1917.

In 1936 Owens began her extensive research on women in mathematics and science. She once recalled that "My interest in women dates way back to my childhood days when my father gave me the book 'History of Illustrious Women,' published in 1852, to read." For a sectional meeting of the American Mathematical Society held at Penn State University in 1937, Owens organized a luncheon to honor the women who pioneered in research work in mathematics. This luncheon was sponsored by Sigma Delta Epsilon, the women's national scientific society, and the women of the Pennsylvania State University mathematics department. The guests of honor were Winifred Edgerton Merrill, Mary Winston Newson, Clara E. Smith, and Clara I. Bacon. Twelve other pioneers and veterans in the field of mathematical research by women were honored in absentia. In preparation for the luncheon and as part of her research, Owens sent a questionnaire to many of the women with doctorates in mathematics. A second questionnaire, with a letter requesting copies of research work, was sent in 1940 for both the Woman's Centennial Congress and World Center for Women's Archives. Much of this material, as well as other papers of Helen Owens on the suffrage movement, is now available at the Authur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America located at Radcliffe College.

Owens' life was marked by tragedy as well as triumphs. In 1928, her daughter, Helen, a medical student and graduate scholar in anatomy at the University of Chicago, committed suicide during a period of despondency. A newspaper report at the time stated that "death followed collapse due to overwork and excessive worry over problems arising in assisting graduate women students in her dormitory. She lived and died in a spirit of keenest scientific investigation." In 1930, Owens' other daughter, Clara, married Thomas Aitcheson, Jr. A year later both Clara and Thomas graduated from the Cornell Medical School and Clara gave birth to a son. Shortly after this, however, Thomas died of blood poisoning following an infection from a boil.

Helen and Frederick Owens both retired from Penn State University in 1949. Little is known about her life after her retirement. Frederick Owens died in 1961. Helen died on June 6, 1969, in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

References

  1. Helen Brewster Owens Papers. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. Biographical notes by Bert Hartry.
  2. Rogers, Mary. "State College Woman Fought in 1st Ranks of Battle for Equal Suffrage," The Centre Daily Times, State College, PA, Thursday, August 25, 1960.
  3. Author Profile at zbMath