Helen Mae Eidson Buchanan Meahl (1912–2006)
Helen Meahl served in the Fifty-fifth Arkansas General Assembly, representing Nevada County, from 1945 to 1946. She later served as a professor of sociology in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
Helen Mae Eidson was born in Springdale (Washington and Benton counties) on September 3, 1912, one of four children in the family of Robert Anson Eidson, who was a farm laborer, and Ruby Ann O’Neil Eidson, a homemaker. After graduating from Springdale High School in 1931, she lived with an aunt and uncle in Oklahoma for a year then attended Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee for one semester.
Moving back and enrolling at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), Eidson was vice president of the Home Economics Club, president of the Baptist Student Union, active in the YMCA, on the editorial staff of Arkansas Agriculturalist magazine, and named Who’s Who in Ag School, one of four senior women honored. She graduated in 1936 with a degree in home economics and accepted a position with the UA Agricultural Extension Service as county home demonstration agent for Nevada County.
In 1937, Eidson married Leslie Buchanan of Prescott (Nevada County), a World War I veteran and widower with two children, and they had two more children, Helen Jo and Robert. Leslie Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to the Arkansas House of Representatives without opposition in 1940 and 1942. During the 1943 legislative session, Helen worked as a committee clerk, while step–daughter Ann was a Senate page. In 1944, Leslie Buchanan was reelected after a contested primary and handily winning a runoff, although he was hospitalized at the Army and Navy Hospital in Hot Springs (Garland County) for a month during the campaign, suffering from the chronic myasthenia gravis that claimed his life on Christmas Eve 1944.
Governor Homer Adkins called a special election for January 24 to fill the vacancy, and James Compton of the prominent oil and gas family announced as a Democrat. Helen Buchanan wrote an open letter “To the People of Nevada County” to “clear up any misunderstanding in the minds of” voters and stated her “desire to fill the place left vacant by the passing of my husband,” adding, “I feel my qualifications are sufficiently adequate to enable me to fill this office.” Two days later, on January 6, the Nevada County Democratic Convention nominated Buchanan, a thirty-two-year-old widow with four children, and she was unopposed in the special election.
On January 18, 1945, Helen Buchanan informally took her seat in House, but she was formally sworn in on January 25 after the date of the special election. For the first time, three women were serving in the Arkansas General Assembly when she joined Representatives Ella Hurst and Allene Word.
Representative Buchanan immediately introduced legislation requiring a three-day waiting period between application and issuing a marriage license, intended to prevent hasty marriage decisions and reduce subsequent divorce rates. “Since one of the dangers to our homes of today is the easy marriage, this law should help safeguard the home, a divine institution,” she argued.
Buchanan was also the lead sponsor of the Flour and Bread Enrichment Act, requiring white flour sold for commercial bakers and home use to be enriched with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, and calcium. She explained that while flour was enriched by order of the War Food Administration, “we must look forward to the needs of our people after the war is over.” It passed with the support of the state Council of Home Demonstration Clubs, the state Health Department, and the state medical and dental societies.
After the legislative session, Buchanan worked as a secretary at First Baptist Church in Prescott and served as vice president of the Prescott Business and Professional Women’s Club. She filed for reelection in 1946, stressing her experience, an understanding of the problems of local citizens, and willingness to “fight courageously” for solutions. Rather than addressing specific issues, she said, “My record is unchallenged and speaks for itself,” and she promised “efficient and dependable representation based upon Christian principles.” She was defeated in the August Democratic primary by 69 votes (1,425–1,354), losing to Hillman May, a returning World War II veteran.
Buchanan and her daughters moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where she worked as assistant editor for the Arkansas Baptist magazine and served as a messenger from Immanuel Baptist Church to the Baptist State Convention. In 1949–1950, she was Dean of Women and professor of sociology at Central College on the Camp Robinson campus in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) and became active in the American Association of University Professors. In May 1950, Buchanan expressed concerns to college president Irving Prince, a Baptist minister, about the financial management of the institution, as faculty salaries were two months in arrears. His response was to charge Buchanan with being disloyal to the college and summarily dismiss her for insubordination. Seven other faculty members resigned in protest, the school folded, and Reverend Prince left the state.
Returning to northwestern Arkansas, Buchanan enrolled in the graduate program in sociology at UA during the 1950–51 academic year. She taught the Winsome Sunday School Class at First Baptist Church and taught civics and home economics at Springdale High School. One of her students was Carolyn Clark, later Representative Carolyn Pollan. At a class reunion years later, many of the students said Buchanan was the most influential teacher in their lives, and one student recalled that Buchanan had been a state legislator “before women were politically active. She was a good model to follow.”
In September 1954, having completed a thesis titled, “The Labor Movement in the United States and Theories of Social Change,” and receiving her MA in sociology, Buchanan entered the doctoral program at Pennsylvania State University. She was appointed an instructor, and, while still a graduate student, co-authored Dating, Mating & Marriage: A Documentary-Case Approach (H. Allen, 1958) with the noted feminist scholar Dr. Jessie Barnard. Buchanan earned her Ed.D. in family relations from Penn State in 1961 and was assistant professor at the University of Tennessee from 1961 to 1964.
Buchanan returned to Pennsylvania in 1965 and married Robert Meahl, a professor of horticulture at Penn State, and then taught as an associate professor at Juniata College from 1965 to 1970 and assistant professor at Penn State from 1971 until her retirement in 1978. She continued to be active in the local chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and, in 1982, helped organize and operate PhoneFriend, an after-school telephone “warmline” for youngsters who were alone for several hours every day when parents were at work or attending classes. She directed PhoneFriend Central when the local AAUW project expanded to more than 300 programs nationally. She was recognized by President Ronald Reagan with a Presidential Citation for Private Sector Initiatives in 1988 and was named Outstanding Woman of the AAUW State College Branch in 1990.
Helen Mae Eidson Buchanan Meahl died on April 23, 2006, in State College, Pennsylvania.
For additional information:
Buchanan, Mrs. Leslie W. “The Legislative Session.” Nevada County Picayune, February 15, 1945, p. 1.
———. “The Legislative Session.” Nevada County Picayune, March 1, 1945, p. 1.
“To the People of Nevada County.” Nevada County Picayune, January 4, 1945, p. 1.
“To the People of Nevada County.” Nevada County Picayune, August 8, 1946, p. 1.
Helen Buchanan Meahl and Helen Buchanan Crust telephone interview with Lindsley Armstrong Smith, November 4, 2005. “Women in the Arkansas General Assembly,” University of Arkansas Women’s Giving Circle and Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics & Society project. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Helen Mae Buchanan, Southern Women Legislators Collection, MUM00422, Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi. Box 1, Series 2, Folder 1–30.
Lindsley Armstrong Smith and Stephen A. Smith
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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