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Lewes house with marker on trail of women's vote

Signs of progress

Photos by Michele Walfred and courtesy of University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press, Hagley Museum and Library, National Archives, Library of Congress

Retired UD faculty member helps commemorate American women’s battle for voting rights

Delaware occupies a special place in the history of women obtaining the right to vote in America. It was unusual as a segregated state where Black and white suffragists met together publicly in support of their common interests.

Now, that history is reflected in physical spaces as well – with historical markers positioned at 7 (soon to be 8) spots on the National Votes for Women Trail. The recognition is due to the work of retired history professor Anne Boylan. Boylan was working on a project profiling Delaware suffrage leaders when, serendipitously, she heard about the nationwide effort to create the trail and volunteered. (Suffragist is the preferred term for those who advocate for the right to vote. The oft-used term suffragette was originally coined to mock women advocates.)

Originally, the trail was a virtual one. Boylan provided 37 sites in the First State for inclusion to the organizing body, the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. Then, the Syracuse-based William G.Pomeroy Foundation stepped in to fund historic markers, creating an actual trail with locations nationwide. Purple and white signs began springing up, allowing history buffs to follow the Road to the 19th Amendment. 

Boylan and her team were asked for five nominations, but supplied eight and were successful with every entry. “In my wildest dreams, I didn’t imagine that we could do that but we did,” she said. The wins may be due to Boylan’s construction of a dream team for the task. She recruited the Honorable Susan Del Pesco, a retired Delaware Superior Court judge, and Marsha White, a former Wilmington prosecutor, to the cause.  

“I could do the historic research, no problem, but I needed people who had some savvy about ‘How do you go about getting a homeowner or a historic site to let you put up a marker?’” Boylan said. “I was extremely fortunate in my two friends.”

Together, they were able to secure locations throughout the state: four in Wilmington along with one each in Dover, Lewes, Georgetown and New Castle.

Rodney Square at 10th and Market Streets in Wilmington was the site of a rally in 1914.
Rodney Square at 10th and Market Streets in Wilmington was the site of a rally in 1914.

Rodney Square, 10th and Market Streets, Wilmington

Site of Rally

Delaware’s first major suffrage parade ended with a rally at 10th and Market Streets, now the site of the city’s central square, on May 2, 1914. The display was part of a nationwide undertaking, designed to call attention to the need for a federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing suffragists to shift their energy from the time-consuming undertakings of convincing individual state legislatures to amend their voting laws. 

“The site’s significance can hardly be overstated,” Boylan and her colleagues wrote in the site’s application for recognition. The parade’s marchers included a group of African American suffragists. Delaware was unusual among segregated states in that it did not disenfranchise Black men. When the 1897 revision of the state constitutions removed existing restrictions, Black men could vote in Delaware.  Therefore, if women were given the right to vote in the state, the electorate would include Black women.

The Wilmington Equal Suffrage Study Club, a Black suffragists group, paraded in a separate “colored” unit with members of the (white) Delaware Equal Suffrage Association and the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage (later the National Woman’s Party). This showing included a homemakers division, the Newport suffragists’ float, the mortarboard-wearing College Women’s group, the Men’s Equal Suffrage Club, the doctors’ and nurses’ section, the children’s division, as well as the Wilmington Fife and Drum Corps, representatives of the Arden, Delaware single tax colony; the YWCA; some socialists; and a “boys section.”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

1310 N. French Street, Wilmington

Home of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

A poet, journalist and teacher, Alice Dunbar-Nelson was Delaware’s leading African American suffragist. She co-founded the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Study Club in 1914 and served as the Black women’s advocacy group’s first president. In 1920, during the ill-fated effort to convince the Delaware General Assembly to ratify the 19th Amendment, Dunbar-Nelson made joint appearances with the state’s National Woman’s Party chair, Florence Bayard Hilles. The appearance of an African American suffragist and a white suffragist together in Black churches and schools was deeply controversial. Some racist legislators, bent on defeating the ratification, used the inclusion of Black women on the voting rolls as a scare tactic. A comment from Delaware’s recently defeated U.S. Senator Willard Saulsbury exemplifies the tone. Saulsbury referred to his African American constituents as “a dense mass of black ignorance.”

Following ratification, Dunbar-Nelson began canvassing the city, registering Black women in preparation for the 1920 elections. Then, in early 1921, she joined a delegation of 60 Black clubwomen and suffrage leaders protesting the National Woman’s Party’s unwillingness to press for federal action to defend the voting rights of Black women in the states of the former Confederacy.  She spent the rest of her life as an advocate for civil rights, peace and women’s international cooperation.

(The University of Delaware Library holds Dunbar-Nelson’s papers. The collection has recently been digitized, offering easier access to scholars worldwide.)

Blanche Williams Stubbs

827 N. Tatnall Street, Wilmington

Home of Blanche Williams Stubbs

In 1915, the Evening Journal, Delaware’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, published a letter written by Blanche Williams Stubbs of Wilmington. It was a response to an editorial run in another newspaper warning readers that African American women would surely “solidly and unthinkingly” support only Republican Party candidates. Stubbs’ response emphasized the common interests of all women voters, calling the editor “a slave” to his prejudices. Invoking the name of “dear old Sojourner Truth,” she reminded him that since 1848, “colored women have been joining hands with the noble white women of this country in every reform movement.”

Along with her friend, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Stubbs helped found the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Study Club, often holding meetings at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House, where she was executive director.  These included some integrated meetings in the then-segregated Delaware. In 1916, she became president of the Delaware Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. And, in 1921, she joined the Delaware delegation to the National Woman’s Party conference in condemning its president, Alice Paul, for not advocating for the rights of Black women in the South.

700 N. Walnut Street in Wilmington is the site of what used to be the Thomas Garrett Settlement House.
700 N. Walnut Street in Wilmington is the site of what used to be the Thomas Garrett Settlement House.

700 N. Walnut Street, Wilmington

Site of the Thomas Garrett Settlement House

While the Thomas Garrett Settlement House no longer occupies the lot at the corner of Walnut and 7th streets in downtown Wilmington, its legacy lingers. The Garrett Settlement was a popular and modern community center. From the beginning (it opened in 1914), it was a second home to some of the most influential women of the day. It was a meeting site for the city’s Equal Suffrage Study Club, founded by Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Blanche Williams Stubbs. Throughout the second half of the decade, the group met there, occasionally in conjunction with their white counterparts.

On June 3, 1920, one day after the Delaware General Assembly adjourned without ratifying the 19th Amendment, the Garrett Settlement House sponsored a lecture entitled “The Equality of Men and Women.”  It seems likely to historians that the timing was no coincidence. Then, in October, after the amendment gained the necessary approval from a majority of states, the Garrett Settlement House was the site of educational classes for new voters on suffrage and citizenship.

Mabel Lloyd Ridgely

7 The Green, Dover

Home of Mabel Lloyd Ridgely (1872-1962)

In the state capital, the hive of suffrage activity was a short walk from Legislative Hall. The home of Mabel Lloyd Ridgely was an unofficial movement headquarters during the spring of 1920 as the legislature debated its stance on the proposed 19th Amendment. 

Ridgely committed herself to the cause of women’s suffrage in 1914 when she pledged to join a Delaware delegation calling upon President Woodrow Wilson to urge his support. By 1915 she was hosting suffrage meetings at her home. During World War I she turned her energies to fundraising for the war effort, promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds. She served as Women’s Liberty Loan chair for Delaware. Under her leadership, the group organized the entire state and raised a substantial proportion of Delaware’s contribution to the loan campaigns. When the war ended, she redirected her efforts to lobbying for women’s rights. She was president of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association during the struggle over ratification of the 19th Amendment.

In 1920, Ridgely became the first president of the Delaware League of Women Voters.

Leah Burton (1878-1968) lived on Shipcarpenter Street in Lewes.
Leah Burton (1878-1968) lived on Shipcarpenter Street in Lewes.

Shipcarpenter Street, Lewes

Home of Leah Burton (1878-1968)

Leah Burton had a particularly steep metaphorical hill to climb in Sussex County, where land is just a few feet above sea level. Her fellow Sussex Countians were among the staunchest anti-suffragists in the state. There, suffrage support was difficult to sustain. Many legislators claimed their women constituents did not want the right to vote. Still, Burton, a leader within the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, forged ahead. In one instance, she verbally challenged an out-of-state anti-suffrage organizer’s attempt to address a local gathering. Her fellow suffragists praised her skills as an organizer and speaker.

Margaret White Houston

Georgetown Public Library, 123 W. Pine Street, Georgetown

Margaret White Houston (1864-1937)

Margaret White Houston was a frequent and eloquent speaker advocating for the women’s suffrage movement from its early days in the state. In 1897, she spoke to delegates of the convention revising Delaware’s state constitution, articulating the simple justice of women’s rights, as citizens, to be voters. The convention later chose to remove barriers to Black men voting without enfranchising women. 

In 1905, she made a memorable speech to the State (Agricultural) Grange on the topic of “The Women of the Twentieth Century.” In 1919 and 1920, she represented Sussex County’s suffragists as county chairwoman at the special session of Delaware’s legislature considering ratification of the 19th Amendment. Houston wrote a key letter to a Wilmington newspaper testifying to the support that women in towns like hers gave to the suffrage cause. 

Following national ratification, she served as an officer in the League of Women Voters and used her new, hard-won right to advocate for improved public school financing and a revised curriculum.

This is an image of the Bethlehem Steel Loading Plant Site, New Castle, Delaware (Battery Park).
This is an image of the Bethlehem Steel Loading Plant Site, New Castle, Delaware (Battery Park).

Bethlehem Steel Loading Plant Site, New Castle, Delaware (Battery Park)

Battery Park, a now-serene spot along New Castle’s waterfront was once the site of a munitions factory that employed several women known to be “militant” suffragists. The women loaded yellow explosive powder into heavy artillery shells during the First World War. They undertook dangerous work that they saw as their duty, a significant contribution to the war effort. These women were active advocates who picketed and lobbied in Washington D.C. At least four, including socialite Florence Bayard Hilles, suffered arrest and/or jail sentences for their activities. Annie Arnel, the most militant of all, was arrested eight times and served a total of 103 days in jails and workhouses. 

“We wish to be made a part of the democracy we are helping to fight for,” they told President Woodrow Wilson. “We wish to be recognized by our country as much as her citizens as soldiers are.”

This marker, the last of the eight to be installed, will be dedicated in New Castle on May 21.

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