1893 – 1980
Active throughout her life in labor movements and consumer rights, Helene Gans devoted herself to improving the lives of working Americans.
She was born on December 27, 1893. A native of the South Side of Chicago, she graduated from the University of Chicago in 1914. She spent her first two years after college working with the Chicago Little Theater while attending secretarial school. In 1916, she left home and moved to New York City. The move upset her mother so greatly that she refused to speak with her daughter for two years. Helene was determined to make it on her own. She rented a small one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village with a friend, and found work. She met Leonard S. Gans at the home of a relative, and the two were married not long after. During the 1920s, she raised her two daughters, Nancy and Barbara. By the early 1930s, her interests were focused on the impact of the Depression on unemployment and the high cost of living.
Engaged in a study for the National Women’s Trade Union League, Gans wrote a paper called “Cut-Rate Wages” in 1932. The paper helped to influence the New York State legislature to enact its first minimum-wage law. Gans also wrote about unemployment for the League of Women Voters. To pay for her daughter Barbara’s braces, she took a job as the executive secretary of the Consumers’ League of New York from 1938 to 1941. There, she urged financial support for WNYC, the municipally funded radio station, and supported city legislation that would increase regulation of food, drugs, cosmetics, and health devices.
From 1942 to 1943, Gans was the eastern regional director of the women’s division of the United States Treasury’s war bond drive. In 1945–1946, she was the director of the women’s division of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Her activist spirit, however, did not include any Jewish causes. She and Leonard had agreed early in their marriage that religion would not play a role in their lives.
Helene Gans died in New York City on May 7, 1980, at age eighty-six.
Gallant, Barbara. Oral history interview with Helene Gans, Gainesville, Fla.; NYTimes, May 7, 1980.