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Women's suffrage in Delaware

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UD Professor Emerita Anne Boylan discusses votes for Delaware women at UDARF luncheon

Anne Boylan speaks into a microphone at a podium

Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware professor emerita of history and of women and gender studies, spoke at the UD Association of Retired Faculty (UDARF) luncheon in December about the history of women’s suffrage in Delaware and the passage of the 19th Amendment.

In March of 1920, all eyes were on Delaware, as the First State had the potential to become the final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing American women the right to vote.

“One more vote — that's all that's needed to put it over the top,” said Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware professor emerita of history and of women and gender studies, who spoke at the UD Association of Retired Faculty (UDARF) luncheon in December, about the history of women’s suffrage in Delaware and the passage of the 19th Amendment. “Would Delaware ratify? Would the First State become the final state to put the amendment over the top?”

In June of 1919, both the U.S. House and Senate had passed the amendment, which then needed 36 state legislatures to sign on. Many people were sure Delaware would be the 36th state to ratify. If it didn’t, many feared ratification likely wouldn’t have occurred in time for the 1920 elections, and it might have taken several more years for the suffragists to win their long struggle to add the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

Ultimately, Delaware was not the final state to ratify (the Senate ratified, but the House did not), and the final ratifying vote came in Tennessee in August. The U.S. Secretary of State certified the amendment on Aug. 26, 1920, which is now celebrated as Women’s Equality Day.

“Delaware did ratify in 1923, but it was purely symbolic,” said Boylan, author of the book Votes for Delaware Women, which was published by the University of Delaware Press in 2021. “Here's the question that I want to address today and try to answer: Why didn't Delaware ratify? And we'll talk a little bit about why it might have seemed that Delaware would ratify. More importantly, why did so many national suffrage leaders believe that Delaware would be the final ratification state?”

Throughout the presentation, Boylan spoke about the major organizations that supported suffrage in Delaware, including the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, the Delaware branch of the National Woman’s Party and the Equal Suffrage Study Club. At the time, it seemed likely that Delaware would ratify, Boylan said. A large amount of suffrage resources were devoted to Delaware, and the governor, John Townsend, was supportive of women’s suffrage, as were other politicians in the state.

Yet despite decades of suffrage organizing, the Delaware legislature ultimately adjourned without ratifying in the spring of 1920. A combination of racial and class issues, partisan bitterness, concerns over taxation and schooling in a segregated state, and legislative gerrymandering doomed the ratification effort, Boylan said.

“Votes for Delaware women arrived in 1920, but it arrived courtesy of 36 other states,” Boylan said.

UDARF holds quarterly luncheons with a speaker and, once a semester, a discussion called, “My Intellectual Journey,” in which a faculty member shares their career experiences. Please check the UDARF events calendar for information.

Article by Amy Wolf; Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson 

Published January 11, 2023

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UD Professor Emerita Anne Boylan discusses votes for Delaware women at UDARF luncheon
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