By Miriam Raftery
April 8, 2015 (San Diego’s East County) –April is Women’s History Month. It’s an appropriate time to share a story about a remarkable woman from East County’s past. Helen Gerrells Stoddard, a former resident of La Mesa , Lemon Grove and Ramona, was a prominent leader in the fight to win women the right to vote, as well as in the temperance movement. She even earned a place in history at the national political level.
Born in 1850 in Wisconsin, Stoddard earned a teaching degree at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in New York, graduating as valedictorian in 1873. She married Sheppard Stoddard and had two sons, one of whom died in infancy. They lived briefly in Nebraska but soon her husband’s health was failing, so the family moved to Florida. After his death in 1875, when Helen Stoddard was just 25 years old, she and her surviving young son moved to Texas to be near her parents.
There, she became president of the Texas state chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, concerned over the negative impacts of alcoholism on women and families. She also served on the faculty of Fort Worth University. She helped establish a women’s industrial arts college that today is known as Texas Women’s University –where two buildings were named after her.
She became an activist, lobbying successfully for a pure food law and laws against cocaine, gambling, child labor, raising the age of protection for girls from 12 to 15 in Texas. She spent three months in Mexico as an organizer and twice served as a delegate to world conventions of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She also wrote an article on the Texas suffrage movement for Susan B. Anthony’s book, History of Woman Suffrage.
In 1910, Stoddard and her son moved to La Mesa, where she was soon elected President of the La Mesa Women’s Club—which incidentally was founded in 1902 and is the city’s oldest active service club today. She also headed up the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Society, forerunner of the prohibition movement.
Local women embarked on barnstorming tours across the county to win support from men for women to gain the right to vote. La Mesa’s newspaper and other local papers editorialized in favor of granting this right, since progressives in the region recognized that women would be key allies in local political issues and in supporting social reforms related to child labor, public health, and regulating alcohol and vice. The La Mesa Scout editorialized that “the right of women to vote is as absolute as that of a man.”
In October 1911, California’s Legislature amended the state’s constitution, granting women the right to vote.
Days later, Helen Stoddard loaded up motorcars with about 40 members of the La Mesa Women’s Club and headed to the Registrar of Voter’s office in downtown San Diego, registering to vote.
In La Mesa, then known as La Mesa Springs, a battle was brewing over incorporation to become a city. Supporters wanted the city to control its own water supply, support public education and other goals. But there was strong opposition, mainly from ranchers who feared their taxes would go up. Early efforts at incorporation faltered—until the women won the right to vote.
A meeting at the La Mesa Opera House on December 1, 1911, ended in disorder without a vote on whether to incorporate, after vocal opponents showed up. Supporters brought their case to the supervisors, and among the speakers was suffrage leader Helen Stoddard. The District Attorney reviewed the petition but rejected it for not meeting requirements to publish notices three times over two weeks. So supporters circulated a new petition—and adjusted boundaries to remove some key opponents.
In February 1912, a new meeting was convened at the opera house (a building that today is the Por Favor restaurant). Citizens nominated candidates for public office should the incorporation petition pass, and Helen Stoddard was nominated to serve, but declined – having higher ambitions, it was later revealed.
On February 7, 1912, a special election was held and the incorporation measure passed by a vote of 249 to 60 – with help from La Mesa’s newly registered women.
Soon after, Stoddard declared her intention to run for Congress on the Prohibition Party ticket. She was the first woman in California to seek national office. Her campaign targeted women with a slogan “A Vote for Helen M. Stoddard is a Vote for the Home.” She didn’t win, but did draw over 1,300 votes out of more than 20,000 cast for the five candidates in the race.
A year later, she and her son, Robert and his wife moved to Lemon Grove, where they spent the next ten years. In 1923, they moved to Ramona, where her son raised turkeys and chickens while his mother continued her work in the temperance movement from their home overlooking the Ramona high school.
In 1920, she was elected president of the California state chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and served as a California delegate to the Congress Against Alcoholism in Washington, D.C.
After her son’s death in 1936 in Ramona, Stoddard and her daughter-in-law moved to Texas. Helen Stoddard died in January1941 at age 90 and her body was returned to San Diego for burial near her son at Greenwood Memorial Park.
She had lived through the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I and the dawn of World War II, Born during the pioneer era, in her lifetime she advanced education of women and saw women win the right to vote, helped lead the successful fight for La Mesa to become a city, ran for national political office, fought for the passage of the prohibition amendment to the U.S. constitution but also lived to see it repealed. Throughout her life, she was a tireless fighter for the rights of women and girls, touching the lives of people across our nation.