By Dana R. Bennett, Ph.D.
Roles in Nevada Suffrage: President, Humboldt County Equal Suffrage League; State Chair, Woman’s Party
Helen Ann “Nellie” McKenzie was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Canadian natives Alexander and Hughena Southerland McKenzie on March 6, 1871. The records about Nellie’s early years and natal family are not clear. Some census records indicate that Nellie was born in Nova Scotia and her parents were born in Scotland. Two sisters were born in Nevada after 1880, suggesting that the family had migrated to Nevada while Nellie was quite young.
It’s also not clear when Nellie married George Lovelock, Jr., but their son, Harold (or Harry) was born in Lovelock, named for George’s father, on August 19, 1887, when she was 16 years old and George was 30. A month later, she was granted a divorce after a long, closed-door court session. George died from malaria in 1893, allowing her to claim in later years that she had been widowed.
Nellie married McKaskia Stearns “M.S.” Bonnifield in 1889, and he adopted two-year-old Harry. Their son, McKaskia Jr, was born in 1892 but did not survive infancy. Bonnifield was 38 years older than Nellie and had been widowed in 1887 when his wife, Laura, of 32 years passed away after a long illness. M.S. and Laura had three daughters.
M.S. Bonnifield was a prominent attorney and politician who was instrumental in the development of Unionville, to which he had arrived from Kansas in 1862, and Winnemucca. He served Humboldt County as a State Senator from 1868 to 1872 and was elected to the Nevada Supreme Court in 1894. He retired in 1901, and the couple returned to Winnemucca where he was often honored as an early pioneer.
With her second marriage, Helen dropped the use of “Nellie” and took up the issue of suffrage. Her husband had been a Senator when the Legislature first considered women’s voting rights in 1869. Upon the failure of that legislation, M.S. Bonnifield organized Nevada’s first suffrage convention, held in Battle Mountain in 1870, which led to the establishment of the state’s first franchise society.
Helen’s election in 1912 as President of the local suffrage society was certainly a reflection of her husband’s long advocacy for women’s political equality. After Judge Bonnifield’s death in Winnemucca on July 14, 1913, Helen became a prominent suffrage advocate in her own right. She developed a close relationship with Nevada Equal Franchise Society President Anne Martin whose papers preserved over 30 letters between the two.
In 1915, after women won the right to vote in Nevada, Anne was elected President of the newly formed Nevada Women’s Civic League and Helen became Third Vice-president. In that role, she organized a Woman’s Civic League in Winnemucca.
Within a year, Helen was state chair of the Woman’s Party and Anne was national chair. As the 1916 election drew near, Helen presided over a Reno meeting to urge women to vote against Democratic candidates as an expression of support for the national suffrage amendment. After the election, Helen wrote to a Reno newspaper editor to commend Humboldt County women voters for ignoring the Winnemucca newspaper’s “abuse of the woman’s party” and voting against U.S. Senator, Key Pittman (D-Nevada). Although re-elected to the office, he had not won the majority of Humboldt County’s votes, which Helen characterized as “a rebuke to a man who did nothing but oppose true, loyal women who were working for a just cause.”
Helen later patched up her differences with the Democratic party, with which her late husband had also been affiliated, and served on the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee in 1922. She was also elected as a delegate to the State Democratic Conventions in 1922 and 1924. On October 5, 1924, Helen’s only son, Harry, died from heart failure, and her political activities decreased after his demise. Helen Bonnifield died at home in Winnemucca on February 1, 1937.
- 1880, 1900, 1910 U.S. Census
- Helen A. Bonnifield Death Certificate, Ancestry.com
- Anne Henrietta Martin Papers, BANC MSS P-G 282, online directory
- The Humboldt Sun, July 3, 1912; July 16, 1913
- Reno Evening Gazette, February 19, 1915; March 29, 1915; November 1, 1916; June 14, 1922
- Nevada State Journal, October 15, 1887; September 25, 1893; March 30, 1906; July 16, 1913; November 15, 1916; May 27, 1924; February 5, 1937
- Dana R. Bennett, All Roads Lead to Battle Mountain: A Small Town in the Heart of Nevada, 1869-1969, 2014
- Austin E. Hutcheson, ed, “The Story of the Nevada Equal Suffrage Campaign: Memoirs of Anne Martin,” University of Nevada Bulletin, 1948
- Thomas Wren, A History of the State of Nevada: Its Resources and People, 1904
Dana R. Bennett, PhD
January 1, 2017