Helen Storrow - Family and Progressive Roots

Family and Progressive Roots

Born Helen Osborne on September 22, 1864 in Auburn, New York, she was the youngest of David Munson (“Munson”) Osborne and Eliza Wright's four children. Her parents were raised in modest circumstances, but by the time of Helen's birth, Munson Osborne had become one of the most prominent men in Cayuga County. Helen and her siblings enjoyed a happy and privileged upbringing, attending private schools, traveling through Europe, and spending summers at their home on Owasco Lake at Willow Point, New York. The Osborne mansion at 99 South Street served as a cultural center in Auburn.

Her eldest sister, Emily (1854–1944), married Springfield banker Frederick Harris; her next eldest sister, Florence (1856–1877), was described as a gentle girl, extremely fond of animals, who died of typhoid fever, leaving behind a fiancée, Samuel Bowles; her only brother, Thomas Mott Osborne (1859–1926), inherited his father’s business, and became a stalwart advocate of prison reform.

Their father, Munson Osborne, was a farmer’s son from Rye, New York. His ancestors were once prosperous landowners, but they became impoverished, having lost their fortune in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Osborne left his father’s home at the age of fifteen, accepting work wherever it could be found. After several failed business ventures, Osborne founded D. M. Osborne & Co. in 1856, and made a fortune manufacturing agricultural machinery. Osborne’s life revolved around his work. He was an exacting, but fair employer, and years after his death his former employees still spoke of him with admiration. One of Auburn’s most respected citizens, Osborne served three terms as mayor (1877–1880); a position later held by both his son and one of his grandsons.

Munson Osborne was described as a loving husband and father, though he had a tendency to behave like a "benevolent autocrat." He respected his wife, and happily entertained her more liberal friends and relations. However, Osborne expected Eliza to conform, for the most part, to the traditional Victorian ideal of wife and mother. his meant virtually abandoning suffrage work after her marriage, and devoting the bulk of her time to domestic affairs.

Having been raised in a family of social reformers, Eliza (Wright) Osborne was stubborn, self-reliant, witty and outspoken, a far less conventional figure than her spouse. She was the eldest child of David and Martha (Coffin) Wright. Both parents were descended from Quakers who traveled to the new world with William Penn. The Wrights were not practicing Quakers, but they still adhered to many tenants of their parents’ faith - a belief in simplicity, equality, and individual dignity. They were staunch abolitionists, whose home served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Wrights and their daughter, Eliza Osborne, were loyal friends of the Underground Railroad's famed “conductor," Harriet Tubman. They helped Tubman settle in Auburn in 1860, and provided Tubman with odd jobs, enabling her to support her family.

Helen’s maternal grandfather was, like her father, ambivalent at best about the issue of women's suffrage, but that didn’t prevent Helen's grandmother from actively campaigning on behalf of political equality. Martha Wright helped to organize the first suffrage convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, prepared the final draft of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, and briefly served as president of the National Woman's Suffrage Association before her death in 1874. Martha’s role in the suffrage movement has been largely overshadowed due to the fame of her older sister, the feminist, abolitionist, and Quaker minister, Lucretia (Coffin) Mott.

The Wrights lived at just a walking distance from the Osborne mansion, and played a significant role in the upbringing of the Osborne children, including Helen. David Wright came to live with the Osbornes a few years after Martha’s death, and spent the remainder of his life with Eliza's family, dying at a ripe old age in 1897. Martha Wright’s friends and fellow reformers, individuals like Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Anna Howard Shaw, were regular guests in the Osborne home.

Helen’s aunt, Ellen (Wright) Garrison, was also involved in the fight for suffrage. She was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, campaigning with her sister-in-law, Fanny Garrison Villard. Ellen married William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., a wool merchant, and the eldest son of “the Great Emancipator,” abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Sr. The younger Garrison was an abolitionist, pacifist, an opponent of Jim Crow laws and the Chinese Exclusion Act, an advocate of women’s suffrage, Henry George’s single tax, free trade, equality for Freedmen and immigrants, and a founding member of the American Anti-Imperialist League. His younger brother, Francis Jackson Garrison, served as the first president of the Boston chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. Helen’s cousin, Eleanor Garrison, graduated from Smith College, and worked for Carrie Chapman Catt as an organizer at the New York office of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Continuing the family tradition of social reform, Eleanor later worked for several years as secretary of Armitage House Settlement in New York City.

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