Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Helen Rulison-Shipley, 1870-1955
By Kay Moore, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, California State University, Sacramento
Dentist, Vice-Chair, Nye County National Woman’s Party (1916)
Born on July 23, 1870, in Dayton, Helen Mullen Rulison must have considered career options after graduating from Reno High School in June, 1888. Two brothers were dentists, but she entered the University of Nevada to become a teacher. Her parents, Charles Henry and Ellen Mullen Rulison were proud of “Nellie,” her childhood name which even appears on the 1880 U.S. Census.
But teaching was not her calling. Encouraged by her brother David, she studied dentistry at the University of California, San Francisco from 1894-1896. Listed in the California, Occupational Licenses, Registers, and Directories, 1876-1969 as completing her coursework on June 16, 1897, she acquired license number 579. Helen practiced in San Francisco, but by 1902, received authorization to be the first female dentist in Nevada. Advertisements in the Reno Gazette-Journal show her sharing an office in Reno with David. The Nevada State Journal (April 13, 1902) noted that she was” very proficient in her knowledge of dentistry.” When Helen was appointed to the newly established Nevada State Board of Dental Examiners on April 10, 1905, it seemed like acceptance of women as dentists was becoming a reality.
By the end of 1906, the mining boom opened new opportunities for an ambitious dentist. Helen traveled to Goldfield where she advertised for patients in the local newspaper, originally seeing to their needs in a hotel room office. By 1908, she was practicing out of the Nye-Ormsby Bank building. According to the Sacramento Union, during the next few years, Helen occasionally returned to Reno where she participated with other women in the Twentieth Century Club’s activities such as card parties. Formed in 1894, the Twentieth Century Club’s monthly meetings provided women a place to discuss civic issues and raise funds for their adopted causes. Susan B. Anthony’s visit to Reno in 1895 motivated them to organize the Equal Suffrage League in Nevada.
The heyday of Goldfield declined and in 1912, Helen moved north to Tonopah in Nye County. It was here that Helen met Robert Shipley, whom she married on July 19, 1916.
On May 10, 1912, the Tonopah Daily Bonanza informed its readers about the formation of a local chapter of the Equal Franchise Society: “Tonopah is to have a suffragette club. Yesterday afternoon a number of prominent ladies of this city met and formed an auxiliary of the Nevada Equal Franchise Society. Quite an interest will be taken during the coming election by the ladies of Tonopah….”
Helen believed in voting rights for women. The State of Nevada Official Returns of the Election of November 1914, show that Constitutional Amendment No. 1 (Suffrage) passed in Nye County 1,294 to 537 and statewide. So Nevada women had the right to vote in state races before those in some other states. When the Nye County branch of the National Women’s Party was formed in August 1916, Helen was elected vice-chairman. The Tonopah Daily Bonanza reported that she and the other officers composed a message to send to President Woodrow Wilson to promote national voting rights for women:
“As women voters, who, if necessary, are prepared to use their votes in the coming election on the one issue of national woman suffrage, we urge you to do all in your power to procure the passage of the Susan B. Anthony amendment in the present session of Congress.”
After seeing women achieve the right to vote in 1920, Helen was ready to move again, returning to Reno in 1926. She retired from practicing dentistry at age seventy-six. Helen died June 6, 1955, and is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery.
A photograph of Helen Rulison-Shipley in her office may be found in Into Their Own: Nevada Women Emerging Into Public Life by Anita Ernst Watson at the top of page 126.
Brodigan, George. (1915). State of Nevada Official Returns of the Election of November, 1914, Constitutional Amendment No. 1 – Suffrage. As found at https://suffrage100nv.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Nye-Suffrage-Tables-Graphs.pdf.
Nevada State Journal, “Dr. David W. Rulison, D.D.S., Helen M. Rulison, D.D.S.” April 13, 1902, p.3.
Personal Communication, John Ekman, Goldfield Historical Society.
Reno Gazette-Journal, “First Woman Dentist in Nevada Dies.” June 7, 1955, p.13.
Rocha, Guy, & Kay Sanders. “Helen Rulison Shipley.” Nevada Women’s History Project. University of Nevada, Reno, January, 2010. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
Society Events in the Valley and the Sierras: Reno. Sacramento Union, Volume 161, Number 3, September 3, 1911.
Tonopah Daily Bonanza, “Equal Franchise Society Formed in Tonopah.” May 10, 1912, p. 1.
Tonopah Daily Bonanza, “National Suffrage Movement Organized in Nye County.” August 26, 1916, p. 2.
United States Census: 1880. Ancestry.com
Watson, Anita Ernst. Into Their Own: Nevada Women Emerging Into Public Life. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2000.