Editor’s note: March is Women’s History Month. Stories of women from Iowa who fought for equal suffrage tell us something important about standing up for equality and justice in a world where those seem to be scarce resources. The fight for justice and equality for all people continues, even beyond this month. These stories appear thanks to the work of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, which is marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment at 19th-amendment-centennial.org.
Helena, also known as Helen, Jane Downey was born around 1875 in Ottumwa. She was married to Russell Downey, also an Ottumwa resident.
Ms. Downey was the first president of the Iowa branch of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club (NACWC), later known as the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. This Iowa club was founded under her leadership in 1902 at a convention in Ottumwa. By 1903, there were eight clubs in the state of Iowa with more than 100 members. The Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s club was active in many aspects of the lives of African Americans in Iowa, and had active committees on suffrage, health, education, social service, and civics, among others. Ms. Downey remained active in the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs throughout her life, serving in numerous leadership positions, including President and later Honorary President.
In addition, she was an active member of the Ida B. Wells Reading Club. This organization was founded in 1902, before the formation of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and held its first meeting at the First Baptist Church in Ottumwa.
She and many other leading members of the NACWC assisted other clubs in their development and worked hard towards the advancement of African-American women, especially young students. She worked diligently within this organization to secure housing for African American women who were students at the University of Iowa. She, and other leaders, had been in touch with administrators in the Office of the President at the university through letters in 1919. Eventually, these letters showed that the office would be endorsing the organization’s efforts and requests. Ms. Downey served as a member and chair of the scholarship committee that she helped found.
Allyn Benkowich and Kristen Corey work for the Office on the Status of Women.