Delaware’s Integral Role in the Fight for Women’s Voting Rights

Words by Lora Bilton Englehart
All photos courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum of Art

On the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we look back at the role Delaware played (or failed to play) in granting women the right to vote.

In the summer of 1920, all eyes were on Delaware. The United States Congress had adopted the women’s suffrage amendment on June 4, 1919, and by 1920 it was in the hands of the individual states to ratify. Once three-quarters of the states voted “yes,” women would be guaranteed the right to vote by the U.S. Constitution.

Though Delaware is called the “First State” because it was the first of the 13 original states to ratify the Constitution of the United States in 1787, it almost earned the moniker the “Last State” thanks to the role it played (or failed to play) in granting women the right to vote. As the centennial of women’s suffrage is celebrated across the country, many organizations throughout Delaware planned programs to mark the occasion and to educate the public on its importance.

“Women’s suffrage is at once a national and a local story in towns across the country,” says Amanda C. Burdan, Ph.D., curator of Brandywine River Museum of Art’s exhibition titled Votes for Women: A Visual History.

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But a century ago, whether to grant women the right to vote wasn’t the subject of scholarly study or museum displays—it was the urgent news of the day. Ten months after suffrage was first introduced, 35 states had voted “yes” and support from just one more state was needed. Delaware, which was controlled by the Republican Party and had a pro-suffrage governor, soon became a battleground state for the movement.

A special session of the Delaware Assembly was called to order on March 22, 1920, to decide the matter. An epic faceoff ensued. In her soon-to-be published book Votes for Delaware Women, Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware professor emerita of history, explains that the foes in this battle were clearly visible; what was not so clear was the position of the legislature. “Suffs” gave their supporters yellow jonquils, while the “Antis” pinned red rose boutonnieres on the lapels of their supporters. President Woodrow Wilson sent a wire urging legislators to vote in favor of the amendment. Suffragists took advantage of the Republican State Convention on April 20 to give speeches all day on The Green in Dover. American flags, suffrage banners and decorated cars appeared all over town.

Delaware was the focus of national attention, with newspapers across the country reporting on the hubbub inside and outside the State House in Dover. A March 25, 1920, Philadelphia Inquirer article gives us a sense of the drama of the day: “Everybody and his mother and sister is heading for the State Capitol,” the article reported. Hotels were packed and the streets were jammed. The tense situation in Delaware reflected its national significance. Headlines on newspapers across the country flip-flopped from victorious to dismal from week to week.

Some Delawareans had been agitating for women’s suffrage for years as this final reckoning came to pass. Mary Ann Sorden Stuart of Greenwood began fighting for women’s rights in 1868 when she formed the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, an affiliate of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Stuart spoke out against “taxation without representation” before turning her attention to women’s suffrage. Described by a newspaper reporter as “a good natured widow dressed in black, who weighed 250 pounds, and able to talk ten hours a day at the rate of 200 words per minute,” Stuart testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1878 and represented Delaware at the annual National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) conventions led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

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That same year, Howard High School teachers Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Alice G. Baldwin, Nellie Nicholson, Caroline Williams, Emma Belle Gibson Sykes and Blanche Williams Stubbs, all leaders in Wilmington’s Black community, formed the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Club. They hoped their efforts to advance women’s suffrage would also contribute to racial equality. In addition, the newly formed Delaware Equal Suffrage Association (DESA) affiliated itself with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. NAWSA, the amalgamation of two previously rival suffrage organizations, was brought together under the strong leadership of peacemaker Carrie Chapman Catt. Delaware would eventually have 17 chapters, with activists in all three counties.

Ten months after suffrage was first introduced, 35 states had voted “yes” and support from just one more state was needed. Delaware, which was controlled by the Republican Party and had a pro-suffrage governor, soon became a battleground state for the movement

A sparkplug in the form of Alice Paul joined the national suffrage effort in 1912 as chair of the Congressional Committee of NAWSA. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns ratcheted up the speed and delivery of the movement’s efforts to be seen and heard. The two young women orchestrated a massive procession down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 13, 1913, in Washington, D.C., the day before the presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, who at the time opposed women’s suffrage. Delawareans were among the estimated 5,000 to 8,000 women who marched that day. The whopping success of the event showed the world what women could do, if given the chance.

A year later, Paul created the Congressional Union (CU), separate from but affiliated with NAWSA, to focus on a national amendment giving women the right to vote. Wilmington’s Florence Bayard Hilles, whose brother, father and grandfather were Delaware senators, rose to the top echelon in the leadership ranks. Rick Bayard, principal at Delaware Government Relations LLC and former state chairman of the Delaware Democratic Party, says of his great-aunt Florence, “Ah, yes, she was the black sheep of the family,” referring to the fact that Hilles’ brother and even her own mother opposed to women’s suffrage. There were many such black sheep in Delaware families as relatives split on the issue of women’s suffrage.

Another “hometown girl” who was a major player in the women’s suffrage movement was Mabel Vernon, a Wilmington Friends School and Swarthmore College graduate. Vernon, a former German teacher, managed the joint CU/DESA office when it opened on 7th and Shipley streets in Wilmington. She was largely responsible for suffrage support among Delaware’s general population and was always ready when Paul had an attention-getting scheme up her sleeve.

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In 1916, the Congressional Union became the National Women’s Party; soon, Paul and Vernon began shocking the world with publicity stunts. As President Wilson addressed Congress one day, Paul smuggled a banner into the gallery under her coat. When she felt the moment was right, she unfurled the banner, which read, “Mr. President, what will you do for women’s suffrage?” On another occasion, Vernon interrupted Wilson as he delivered a speech at the dedication of the Labor Temple in Washington, D.C., continually shouting, “Mr. President, if you sincerely desire to forward the interests of all the people, why do you oppose the national enfranchisement of women?” before security escorted her away.

The women’s most audacious stunt, however, was the orchestration of a picket line in front of the White House. Beginning on January 10, 1917, Paul and her NWP stalwarts, dubbed “Silent Sentinels” by the press, stood from dawn to dusk in the heat of summer and the freezing sleet and falling snow of winter holding signs with printed messages such as, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Wilson, as well as all visitors to the White House, had to pass the picketers and their signs every time they entered or left the presidential mansion. Frustrated police arrested the picketers for the weak offense of “obstructing traffic” and sent them to the District of Columbia jail.

Once released, the women returned to their picket line. This time, they were arrested and fined $25. When the women refused to pay, the police sent them to Occoquan Workhouse, a horrid women’s detention facility in Fairfax County, Virginia. There, the women were beaten and fed maggot-infested food. During what became known as the “Night of Terror,” some women were forced to stand through the night chained to the bars of their cells. Sixteen Delaware women spent time in Occoquan; among them were Vernon, Hilles, Annie McGee, Naomi Barrett, Catherine Boyle, Mary E. Brown and Annie Arniel. Arniel went to jail eight times, more than any other suffragist in the movement. Her health was permanently compromised as a result of her final imprisonment.

The women’s most audacious stunt, however, was the orchestration of a picket line in front of the White House. Beginning on January 10, 1917, Paul and her NWP stalwarts, dubbed “Silent Sentinels” by the press, stood from dawn to dusk in the heat of summer and the freezing sleet and falling snow of winter.

The suffragists were confident they could win Delaware for the cause. Most of the legislators assured the suffragists that they would vote for ratification. The suffragists also had the support of state and local Granges, the state Federation of Women’s Clubs, the state Methodist convention, the state Federation of Labor, and state committees of the Republican and Democratic parties. No organization opposed the move.

The governor did everything he could to help the suffragists, including offering to withdraw his candidacy as a delegate to the National Republican Convention if Sussex County delegates would vote for the suffrage amendment. The energy and determination of the suffragists is clear in the case of Democratic floor leader John McNabb, who claimed there were not 25 people in his district in favor of ratification. Two days later, the suffragists handed him a petition with the signatures of 500 of his constituents.

It is hard for us, in the year 2020, to imagine why people would object to women voting. However, object they did, particularly the wealthy. The leaders of the Delaware Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage were society matron Mary Wilson Thompson (whose husband was a classmate of President Wilson at Princeton) and social worker Emily Bissell.

In her 1930s memoir, Thompson explained her reasons for opposing women’s suffrage. “I have always opposed votes for women. It is constitutional with me. It is not that I feel women cannot vote or are not the mental equal of our men folks, but I feel that it is duplicating our work. It is putting an extra burden on the women and it has weakened materially our power with the legislatures.” She goes on to say that the vote will give women an “overbearing spirit towards men,” and lamented, “What is to become of the family?”

Henry P. Scott, a Republican and chairman of the state Ways and Means Committee, argued that “if the Legislature will refuse to ratify the proposed amendment and thus prevent the hysterical rout of the politicians of the country to make shreds and patches of our sacred Constitution, the State of Delaware will receive in the near future the greatest possible glory.”

For her part, Bissell, who was president of the Delaware Anti-Tuberculous Society and beloved for her role in creating Christmas Seals, claimed that as an unmarried, self-supporting woman, she was the very sort of person that the suffragists presumed to represent, but she did not need them. Of course, she had servants and a cook in her home. She could call upon a legislator directly to express her views. It did not occur to her that women who were not of her social standing didn’t have these advantages.

Wealthy Delawareans who bucked the trend and did support the suffrage cause included cousins Pierre S., Alfred I. and T. Coleman du Pont. In fact, T. Coleman du Pont loaned one of his cars to the suffragists to help in their statewide travel.

On the surface, the amendment vote looked promising for the suffragists. On May 5, the Senate voted 11–6 to ratify. What the public couldn’t see, however, was the behind-the-scenes lobbying. On June 2, the Delaware House of Representatives voted 24–10 against women’s suffrage, killing the amendment and ending the frenzy in Delaware. The Suffragist newsletter bitterly described Delaware as a “quaint backwater, with its colonial Green and ancient State House, too old-fashioned to accept such a progressive reform.”

On June 2, the Delaware House of Representatives voted 24–10 against women’s suffrage, killing the amendment and ending the frenzy in Delaware.

Boylan, of the University of Delaware, sums up how the tangled web of Delaware’s legislature doomed the women’s suffrage vote:

“For although it [ratification] was in part a tale of women—suffragists and anti-suffragists—facing off with each other over competing visions of womanhood and citizenship, it was never merely that. Instead, the struggle over “votes for women” was enmeshed in long-standing and intractable political divisions within the state’s political parties and its legislature, divisions etched deep into Delaware’s political history. It was also carried out on a political field whose boundaries had been set by long-time apportionment practices providing substantial advantages to some members of the General Assembly over others. In Delaware in 1920, all legislative seats—and all votes—were not created equal.”

The organizing suffrage “generals,” including Hilles, packed their bags and raced to Tennessee, where they remounted their campaign. Through the remainder of the hot and humid summer, the “Suffs” and the “Antis” pressed on. The Tennessee Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920, by one vote. Finally, 72 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, where a woman’s right to vote was a contested agenda item, suffragists had crossed the finish line of their long and arduous race. The honors for being the “Last State” went to Tennessee, not Delaware.

The 19th Amendment became part of the Constitution of the United States of America on Aug. 26, 1920. On Nov. 2, 1920, more than 26 million American women voted in a national election for the first time, regardless of whether their state had ratified the amendment. Delaware belatedly ratified the 19th Amendment on March 6, 1923; Mississippi was the last state to ratify the amendment in 1984.

Former Delaware Superior Court Judge Susan C. DelPesco states, “The centennial of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution is a rare and glorious time. The 19th Amendment was the greatest expansion of democracy in our nation’s history. Many doors that were not open when my mother was born were open for me. For this, I am full of awe and gratitude. I am also aware that civil rights, once won, must be defended, and understanding our history ensures that all Americans will be up to the task.”

After their long, hard battle was won, many suffragists channeled their energies toward new causes. They educated and supported women voters as members of the newly formed League of Women Voters, whose mission, declared Catt, was “to finish the fight and aid in the reconstruction of the nation.” The League of Women Voters of Delaware opened its doors in 1921 with Mabel Lloyd Ridgely as its first president.

Today, the organization’s website declares, “The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in government.” Its members aim to influence public policy through education and advocacy. Barring any unforeseen circumstances like the coronavirus that derailed the 19th Amendment centennial celebratory events planned for 2020, Delaware’s League of Women Voters looks forward to celebrating its centennial in 2021.

Published as “Battle for the Ballot” in the August 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.

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