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Woodbury, Helen Laura Sumner (1876–1933) - U.S. Labor History

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Helen Laura Sumner was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to George True Sumner, a lawyer, and Katharine Eudora (Marsh) Sumner on March 12, 1876. The family moved to Durango, Colorado, when she was five, and her father became a judge. In 1889 the family moved to Denver, where Helen attended East Denver High School. She received a B.A. in 1898 from Wellesley College, where Katharine Coman was a professor. Her first publication was a novel, The White Slave, or “The Cross of Gold,” published in 1896. Sumner attended the University of Wisconsin in 1902 for graduate study, where she was named honorary fellow in political economy in 1904–1906 and studied American history under Frederick Jackson Turner and Ulrich B. Phillips. During that time, she wrote on labor, contributing a chapter to John R. Commons’s Trade Unionism and Labor Problems (1905) and collaborating with Thomas S. Adams on a textbook called Labor Problems , also in 1905.

In 1906 Sumner left the university to complete a fifteen-month field investigation of woman suffrage in Colorado for the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League of New York State. The result was a report entitled Equal Suffrage (1909). She returned to the University of Wisconsin to collaborate with Commons in the American Bureau of Industrial Research and edit the eleven-volume Documentary History of American Industrial Society (1910–1911). Her dissertation, “The Labor Movement in America, 1827–1837,” resulted in a Ph.D. in political economy and American history in 1908, and it became a major part of History of Labour in the United States by a group headed by Commons. Sumner became a part of that group, which was said to have dominated labor research for decades. Another of her works, “History of Women in Industry in the United States,” was incorporated in the Commons volumes. Sponsored by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, it was published as Volume 9 in 1910 as Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States .

After her temporary employment with Commons ended in 1909, Sumner lived with her widowed mother in Washington, D.C., and worked on contract studies for federal bureaus and other scholarly projects. In 1910 the Bureau of Labor Statistics sent her to Europe; the result was Industrial Courts in France, Germany, and Switzerland (Bureau Bulletin No. 98). In 1913 she joined the Children’s Bureau, created by Julia Lathrop, and worked there until 1918. While at the bureau she compiled several studies of child labor problems. After her marriage in 1918 to Robert Morse Woodbury, a Ph.D. graduate of Cornell, she worked on contract only until she and her husband became members of the staff of the Institute of Economics (Brookings Institution) in 1924; they remained until their retirement in 1926. In 1928 Woodbury was appointed associate editor of Social Science Abstracts , and the pair moved to New York City. Helen Woodbury died at her home in New York of heart disease on March 10, 1933.

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