Helen Louise Cohen, an educator and author, made the study of drama more accessible and vibrant to countless numbers of high school students in the first half of the twentieth century. Although Judaism seemed to play only a small role in her adult life, it is Jewish culture and values that contributed to her regard for education and helped to shape her life’s work.
She was born on March 17, 1882, in New York City to Gustavus Anker Cohen and Clara (Mayer) Cohen, German-American Jews. Helen earned her A.B. in English in 1903, at Barnard College, where she acted in a number of college productions. In 1905 she earned her M.A. in English, also at Barnard, and in 1915 she was awarded a Ph.D. in English at Columbia University. Her dissertation was entitled “The Ballade.”
Like many young women who received graduate degrees, Cohen had pursued her career rather than marrying immediately upon graduation. In 1903, she had begun teaching English at Washington Irving High School. From 1909 to 1913, she was the deputy principal, and in 1914 she became the chair of the English Department. Cohen was also a lecturer at Columbia University Extension School in 1914–1915 and taught summer school at Johns Hopkins University in 1924 and at Pennsylvania State College in 1929.
Through her widely used collections of plays for high school students, Cohen’s impact reached far beyond Washington Irving High School. Although she had studied the medieval and Renaissance French ballade, Cohen believed that the study of modern drama, especially American plays, was particularly important for high school students. In many cases, she argued, formal education would end with high school graduation. Thus, pupils should study drama because it offered “the young worker” “diversion, solace, and inspiration.” American plays might inspire a patriotism in students that would contribute to “the welfare of the native drama,” and also spur creativity.
The introductions to the volumes of plays Cohen edited convey both a sense of excitement and passion for drama and a solid sense of how pupils should study and write plays. As modern drama was becoming an increasingly accepted art form, she hoped to convey to students how to be discriminating theatergoers.
Cohen’s other professional activities included membership in the American Academy of University Women, the New York Academy of Public Education, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council of Administrative Women in Education, Phi Beta Kappa, and the School and Collegiate Conference on English. She was also an associate member of the legal advisory board in connection with the selective service law in New York for 1917–1918, and a personnel worker for the Military Intelligence Division in Washington, D.C., in 1918.
Cohen was married in 1934 to William Roswell Stockwell, the general manager of the Weil-McLain Company of Chicago, manufacturers of boilermakers. With her marriage, Cohen became part of the three percent of American Jews who intermarried in the 1930s. She died on July 18, 1957, and is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York.
SELECTED WORKS BY HELEN LOUISE COHEN
“The Ballade” (1915); Educating Superior Students: Co-operative Studies Carried on Under the Auspices of the Association of First Assistants in the High Schools of the City of New York, with Nancy G. Coryell (1935); The Junior Play Book, editor (1923); Longer Plays by Modern Authors, editor (1922); Lyric Forms From France: Their History and Their Use (1922); More One-Act Plays by Modern Authors, editor (1927); One Act Plays by Modern Authors, editor (1921).
Cremin, Lawrence. American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876–1980 (1988); Lefkowitz, Helen Horowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges From Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930’s (1984); Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Education Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (1985); UJE; WWIAJ (1926, 1928, 1938).
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Friedman, Rachelle E.. "Helen Louise Cohen." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 16, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/cohen-helen-louise>.