Woodbury, Helen Sumner (1876–1933)

views updated

Woodbury, Helen Sumner (1876–1933)

American historian and public official. Born Helen Laura Sumner on March 12, 1876, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; died on March 10, 1933, in New York City; daughter of George True Sumner (a Colorado judge) and Katherine Eudora (Marsh) Sumner; Wellesley College, A.B., 1898; University of Wisconsin, Ph.D., 1908; married Robert M. Woodbury (an economist), in November 1918.

Helen Sumner Woodbury was born in 1876 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the daughter of George True Sumner, a district attorney, and Katherine March Sumner . When she was five, the family moved to Durango, Colorado, where her father became a judge; they moved again in 1889 to Denver. Woodbury attended public schools and then entered Wellesley College, a private women's school in Massachusetts. Wellesley's faculty was particularly active in liberal political and social reform movements in the 1890s, and Woodbury was deeply influenced by her professors, including Vida Scudder, Katherine Lee Bates (literature), Katharine Coman (economics and history), Emily Greene Balch (economics), and Mary Whiton Calkins (philosophy and psychology). Drawn to social and political causes, she majored in economics, and in 1896 tried to aid the populist presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan by publishing a short story, "The White Slave, or, 'The Cross of Gold,'" which supported Bryan's "free silver" platform.

In 1898, she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. Sympathetic to the growing American labor movement, in 1902 Woodbury went on to study labor economics with Richard T. Ely and John Commons at the University of Wisconsin. In 1904, she was named an honorary fellow in political economy at the university. Perhaps the major economist of the early 20th century, Commons would have a marked impact on Woodbury's career; she contributed to his Trade Unionism and Labor Problems in 1905 and for the next several years was an important figure in his American Bureau of Industrial Research. With Thomas S. Adams, Woodbury also co-authored a college textbook, Labor Problems (1905).

In 1906, she conducted a long investigation of women's suffrage in Colorado for the New York State Collegiate Equal Suffrage League. Two years later, she graduated with a doctorate for her thesis, "The Labor Movement in America, 1827–1837"; her report on women's suffrage was published as Equal Suffrage in 1909. Her thesis would appear revised in Commons' two-volume The History of Labor in the United States (1918), the first serious study on the topic. Another part of her research, on women in the American labor force, formed the basis of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' "History of Women in Industry in the United States," in its Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States (1910). Woodbury also served as associate editor on Commons' A Documentary History of American Industrial Society (1910–11).

A member of the Socialist Party, Woodbury rejected Marxist theory as inapplicable to American capitalism. She belonged to the Intercollegiate Socialist Society and was a longtime member of the national council of its successor, the League for Industrial Democracy. She traveled to Western Europe in 1910 to study labor law and the special labor courts European democracies had established; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published the results of her study as Industrial Courts in France, Germany, and Switzerland that year. She would later publish several articles arguing that the United States would benefit from a similar labor justice system.

Although she did not initially secure a fulltime government position, Woodbury published regularly between 1910 and 1913 and produced labor studies for many federal labor agencies while living with her widowed mother in Washington, D.C. In 1913, Woodbury joined Julia Clifford Lathrop and the staff of the newly formed U.S. Children's Bureau. Over the next five years, she would head numerous studies on child-labor issues, most of which were published; her most important publications with the Bureau include Child Labor Legislation in the United States (1915) and The Working Children of Boston: A Study of Child Labor under a Modern System of Legal Regulation (1922). Well respected among her colleagues, Woodbury was eventually promoted to director of investigations for the Bureau in June 1918. She resigned in November when, at age 42, she married an economist, Robert Morse Woodbury. However, she would remain affiliated with the Bureau until 1924.

The Woodburys accepted positions at the Institute of Economics in 1924, where Helen worked to establish standards for gathering labor statistics. She also served as a contributor to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences between 1926 and 1928, as well as to the Dictionary of American Biography. She remained active as a researcher and writer until her death in 1933, age 56, at her home in New York City.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

About this article

Woodbury, Helen Sumner (1876–1933)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article