Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934)

Friends and Acquaintances of Emily Sibley Watson:

Helen Barrett Montgomery was one of the most influential and highly regarded women in Emily Sibley Watson’s circle. Her passionate support of women’s rights, access to education for all, and international Christian missionary work propelled her into leadership positions within the Rochester and national communities.[1]


We hear her concerned and kind “voice” only once in the Sibley and Watson family papers, but there were also several mentions of her in family correspondence. In an 1892 letter from North Adams, MA, Elizabeth Sibley wrote that she was very sorry to miss any of Mrs. Montgomery’s lectures.[2] A few years later, in 1895, when the Watsons met with near disaster on a cruise in the Bahamas, Montgomery wrote to Emily Sibley Watson:


Just a word out from the band of snow to you in the land of flowers to tell you how glad I am that you are safe through great peril. Our papers tried to treat the whole matter lightly, but I cannot see how it could have been other than a time of terrible uncertainty and anxiety… I've never been where I knew I was in danger. I fancy that it must make the real things very real. I know how strong and sweet you must have been when the great curtain seemed to swing so near to you. There is no chance about it anyway, and it is so good that God leaves you here for us to love and for his work. My heart is full of love to you - I'm glad that you are out of this bitter, bitter storm, but glad that you're soon to be home. Remember me to Mr. Watson and present my salaams to his little…highness [James Sibley Watson, Jr.] - Lovingly, Helen B. Montgomery[3]


The daughter of the pastor of Lake Avenue Baptist Church, Rev. Amos Judson Barrett, and Emily Barrows Barrett, Helen attended Livingston Park Seminary in Rochester, and in 1884 graduated from Wellesley College.[4] After teaching school for several years, she married Rochester businessman and fellow church member William A. Montgomery on September 6, 1887. He supported her endeavors on behalf of her church, her community, and the greater world until he died. While the two never had children together, they adopted a daughter, Edith, in 1895.


From a 21st century Rochester vantage point, as the centennial of passage of the 19th amendment is about to be celebrated, Montgomery’s friendship with Susan B. Anthony and her support of women’s rights is the most compelling chapter of her life. As early as 1894, she was writing about equal suffrage for men and women[5]. In 1896, she was one of the speakers at the 28th annual National Women’s Suffrage Association banquet, Susan B. Anthony then holding the office of president of the association. Both Mrs. Montgomery and her husband sat at the “table of honor.”[6] Her public support of suffrage put her in the line of fire but also positioned her as an influential political leader, and her support was sought by organizations like the National Progressive Party in the election of 1912.[7] Her friend Emily Sibley Watson was on the opposing side of the suffrage issue; her support was sought by the local Anti-Suffragist membership committee, along with that of Mrs. Rush Rhees, the wife of the President of the University of Rochester.[8] Would and did their friendship survive the suffrage debates? Unfortunately, there are no surviving documents that suggest that their friendship endured. Possibly, their shared concern for the success of missionary endeavors continued to link them. We do know that Emily Sibley Watson’s friend and Montgomery’s friend and fellow suffragist Edwine Danforth was the recipient of Watson’s generosity during the Depression, with gifts of a car, a radio, and cash, suggesting that positions on suffrage did not necessarily make or break friendships.[9] 


As early as 1893, with Susan B. Anthony and others, Montgomery sided publicly with the cause of women by establishing the Rochester chapter of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, where women found vocational training, education, and financial resources to help them and their family live decent and self-sufficient lives. The WEIU also took up policy issues related to municipal government, and in general, tried to influence the community to move in positive directions that would benefit all classes of society. Montgomery served as president for nearly two decades, from 1893-1911. The Rochester chapter was housed in Watson House on North Clinton Avenue, formerly the home of Emily Sibley Watson’s husband James Sibley Watson, his parents, and his sisters, Isabelle Watson Hollister and Elizabeth Watson Hollister. Both sisters were friends of Mrs. Montgomery.[10] Anthony and Montgomery  were honored speakers at the dedication of the new Young Women’s Christian Association building in 1898 on North Clinton Avenue, which Montgomery in her role as emissary from the WEIU called a “sister organization.”[11] 


Teaching and public speaking came naturally to Helen Barrett Montgomery; she lectured often on a wide range of subjects, including religion as well as art history. Her talks were so popular that her lectures had to be moved to the new YWCA with their bigger facilities, rather than the usual venue of the Watson House.[12] She was the first woman to teach at the University of Rochester, through the extension program in the 1890s.[13] She advocated for educational reform in Rochester, promoting kindergarten and vocational courses in the public schools, and was elected to the City School Board in 1899, the first woman elected to public office in the history of Rochester.[14] As a college graduate and a teacher, Montgomery understood the importance of a good education for members of both sexes. Again, alongside Susan B. Anthony, she spearheaded an uphill effort during the last years of the nineteenth century to raise funds to advance the cause of co-education at the University of Rochester. Many women’s organizations in Rochester contributed, including the Wednesday Morning Club, where Montgomery was an early member.[15] Their painstaking efforts paid off in the fall of 1900, when women were first admitted.[16]


Concurrent with her political activism, Montgomery advanced the cause of religion and women’s missionary work. She would not have seen any divide between the two aspects of her interests, as she believed that Christianity provided a successful model for the well being of communities. In particular, she believed that women’s role in the home could and should extend into the public realm. According to her biographer, Kendal P. Mobley, her women’s Sunday school class was considered one of the most influential programs in Rochester.


A lifelong dedication to the Baptist Church and steadfast support of its missionary program led to Montgomery’s inclusion in Helen Kooiman Hosier’s 2000 book, 100 Christian Women who Changed the 20th Century.[17] Another of her “firsts” for women was her election as the first woman president of the Northern Baptist Convention in 1921. Three years later, in 1924, her translation of the New Testament from the original Greek was published (and she was the first woman to do so through a professional publisher). Her book Western Women in Eastern Lands, published in 1910, was a study guide to missionary work for women. Her fundraising efforts helped establish Christian colleges for women in China. In 1913, she traveled to East Asia to deepen her understanding of missions and published The King’s Highway shortly following her return.


Helen Barrett Montgomery died in 1934 and was buried in Rochester’s Riverside Cemetery. Her name is connected to two educational institutions. The Helen B. Montgomery School, School 50, 301 Seneca Avenue, was named in her honor in 1957. At Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, an annual lecture program also carries her name. Unfortunately, the University of Rochester, on behalf of whose women students she worked so persistently to gain admission, has not recognized the efforts of this remarkable woman.


Selected publications by Helen Barrett Montgomery:


“Her Own Story,” in Helen Barrett Montgomery: From Campus to World Citizenship,” New York: Revell, 1940.


The King’s Highway: A Study of Present Conditions on the Foreign Field,” West Medford, MA: Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, 1915.


“The Last Ten Years of the Rochester Schools,” The Common Good 5, no. 1 (October 1911): 5-11.


Western Women in Eastern Lands: An Outline Study of Fifty Years of Women’s Work in Foreign Missions, New York: Macmillan, 1910.

[1]Much of the information on the life of Helen Barrett Montgomery is taken from the biography written by Kendal Mobley: Helen Barrett Montgomery: The Global Mission of Domestic Feminism, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009.

[2]Letter, Elizabeth Tinker Sibley to Emily Sibley Watson,  November 15,1892, Moving Image Stills Archive, George Eastman Museum, Box C338 Letters to Mrs. James S. Watson  (1/2/1892-12/27/1895).   

[3]Letter, Helen B. Montgomery to Emily Sibley Watson, February 13, 1895, Moving Image Stills Archive, George Eastman Museum, Box C338 Letters to Mrs. James S. Watson (1/9/1895-4/14/1895).

[4]Her alma mater awarded her a rarely-given honorary degree in 1925. https://archive.org/stream/wellesleycollege1975well/wellesleycollege1975well_djvu.txt accessed November 15, 2019. The first honorary degree was given only three years earlier to Marie Curie. The year that Montgomery received the award, Katherine Lee Bates was another recipient. She wrote the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” In the presentation to Montgomery, these words were written: “Who adds to a wise and brilliant Christian leadership the achievement of a scholar in the Centenary Translation of the New Testament from the Greek text."

[5] “Equal Suffrage,” Harper’s Bazaar 27, no. 28, May 5, 1894, pp. 354-55.

[6] “Gastronomy and Civics,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 26, 1896, page 13.

[7] Mrs. William A. Montgomery to Address Moose,” Democrat and Chronicle, August 22, 1912, page 13.

[8] “Women Do Not Want To Vote,” Democrat and Chronicle, October 30, 1915, page 17.

[9] $1600 entry for automobile for Edwine B. Danforth, Emily Sibley Watson’s Ledger, 1923-1928, June 20, 1928, page 261, Moving Image Stills, George Eastman Museum.

[10] “In Their New Quarters: The Women’s Union Takes Possession of the Watson House,” Democrat and ChronicleI, May 2, 1894, page 8. Also, in 1901, the Watson sisters took Mrs. Montgomery with them as their guest on an extended trip through the Mediterranean region (see note 8 of biographical entry on Marcia Isabelle Watson Hollister on this site https://dslab.lib.rochester.edu/esw/imwh). 

[11] “The New Building Was Dedicated,” Democrat and Chronicle, June 7, 1898, page 2.

[12] “Mrs. Montgomery’s Lecture,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 3, 1898, page 9.

[13] Melissa Mead, “Helen Barrett Montgomery,” email, 2019.

[14] “Republican Landslide,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 8, 1899, page 12.

[15]Helen Barrett (Mrs. William A.) Montgomery was a member of the Wednesday Morning Club, a women's study group formed in 1890 which included among its early membership Margaret Durbin Harper Sibley, Emily Sibley Watson's sister-in-law.  Emily Sibley Watson joined the club in 1908, and shared the Camping in Morocco manuscript with the Club in 1910. On February 16, 1899, at the 103rd meeting of the Wednesday Club, the secretary noted that a motion was made to send a contribution to the “co-education contingent fund.” The Wednesday Club Papers, D.135, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester.

[16] “Opens Its Doors to Young Women,” Democrat and Chronicle, September 9, 1900, page 18.

[17] Hosier, Helen Kooiman, 100 Christian Women who Changed the 20th Century. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 2000.