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'Votes for Delaware Women'

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Professor's book describes epic struggle for suffrage in First State

Group of women with suffrage banners

​Delaware suffragists gather at the Wilmington train station in May 1914 on their way to a national parade in Washington, D.C.; Wilmington had hosted its own large parade a week earlier. African American women in Delaware played critically important roles in the fight for suffrage, but the state was segregated and groups of white suffragists tended to distance themselves from the issue of Black voting rights.

In early 1920, Delaware — the First State — had the chance to make history again, potentially becoming the final state needed to ratify the constitutional amendment guaranteeing American women the right to vote.

“Delaware was the center of attention at the time,” said Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware professor emerita of history and of women and gender studies and author of a new book exploring the fight for suffrage in the state, Votes for Delaware Women. “It should have become the final state to ratify; many people were sure that it would be. If Delaware didn’t ratify, it wasn’t at all clear that there was another state ready to step up.”

If that happened, it was feared, ratification wouldn’t occur in time for the 1920 elections, and it might take several more years — or even a decade — for the suffragists to win their long struggle to add the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Both the U.S. House and Senate had ratified the amendment, which then needed 36 state legislatures to sign on. By the time Delaware’s pro-suffrage Republican governor, John Townsend, convened a special session of the majority-Republican General Assembly to consider the amendment, 35 other states had ratified it.

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Anne Boylan

​Anne M. Boylan

​“All political eyes were on Delaware,” Boylan writes in the opening of her book that sets the scene for the political battle in Dover.

So many activists and lobbyists on both sides of the suffrage issue, reporters from various newspapers and wire services, politicians and public officials from across the country arrived in the state capital that it became impossible to find a hotel room in the city.

For a few months, from March until early June 1920, there were rallies and targeted outreach efforts from constituents to their legislators — nationally, the suffragists had already succeeded in 35 state ratification campaigns, Boylan noted, so they were experienced and highly organized. In Legislative Hall in Dover, representatives, senators and visitors sported red roses (distributed by anti-suffrage groups) or yellow daffodils or jonquils (in favor of suffrage) on their lapels.

Calling the battle in Delaware “an epic struggle,” Boylan quotes from a 1983 article by Carol E. Hoffecker, now the Richards Professor Emerita of History at UD, which noted that for a short time, “the little state controlled the political future of millions of women.”

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Book cover

Votes for Delaware Women explores the political and cultural issues that eventually resulted in Delaware’s Senate voting in favor of ratifying the amendment, while the state House of Representatives ultimately adjourned without bringing the matter to a final vote. (Spoiler alert: Tennessee would become the final vote that ratified the amendment on Aug. 18. The 19th Amendment was then certified and officially adopted on Aug. 26, now celebrated as Women’s Equality Day.)

“In the end, the ratification struggle came down not to a contest between pro- and anti-suffrage women … but to a political contest among male politicians, editors, industrialists, agriculturalists and businessmen,” Boylan writes.

Delaware’s suffragists were “bitterly disappointed” when the state failed to ratify, she said, but they quickly began using their organizing experience to educate and register women to vote and get them to the polls, where they voted in large numbers in the state.

Boylan, who recounts the long history of women’s suffrage in Delaware beginning in the 1860s with pioneering activists Mary Ann Sorden Stuart and Thomas Garrett, said the state’s story is both typical in many ways — because the national struggle “involved almost as many defeats as victories” with no guaranteed outcome — and unusual in others.

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Alice Dunbar Nelson

​Alice Dunbar Nelson moved to Wilmington in 1902 and became a key player in the struggle for suffrage and equality for women and African Americans.

Among the differences she found in her research was that Delaware’s white and African American suffragists occasionally met together. Delaware was a segregated state, and the white pro-suffrage activists generally tried to distance themselves from discussing the issue of Black voting rights, so the cross-racial meetings were a surprise, Boylan said. And, she said, Black suffragists were critically important in the struggle.

“I knew they were very well organized, but I think even I was a little surprised at how organized they were,” she said. “In this book, I especially wanted to feature the African American women because many of their stories have never been told, or even acknowledged.”

Unlike the segregated states of the South, Delaware’s 1897 constitution had eliminated the poll tax and other impediments to voting, and Black men in the state had been active voters and elected to office in Wilmington. So, Boylan said, “Everyone knew that expanding the suffrage in Delaware would include Black women.”

After ratification, women in Delaware voted not as a bloc but for different parties and in support of various issues, Boylan said.

But Black women, she writes, “registered and voted enthusiastically for Republican candidates.” They also wielded enough voting power to take on the state’s Republican congressman when he failed to support an anti-lynching bill; breaking their usually unified support for Republicans, Black women saw that he was defeated for re-election in 1922.

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More about 'Votes for Delaware Women'

Blanche Stubbs

​Blanche Stubbs of Wilmington was a leading suffrage activist, believing that women’s votes, especially Black women, could lead to increased support for education.

​Votes for Delaware Women, published by the University of Delaware Press, is the first book-length study of the women’s suffrage struggle in the state.

The project began about six years ago when Boylan was asked by Thomas Dublin of Binghamton University to contribute to the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States that he and Kathryn Kish Sklar were developing ahead of 2020’s 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

Although Boylan was preparing to retire from the faculty, she recruited students at UD and high school students at Padua Academy in Wilmington to help with the research.

They began with “the militants,” a small group of suffrage activists affiliated with the National Women’s Party who made headlines by picketing the White House and occasionally getting arrested for the cause.

Students did research and writing, and Boylan used her access to additional sources to expand their contributions. Next, she wanted to focus on African American suffragists, and students from then-UD faculty member Carl Suddler’s African American Women’s History class were recruited to conduct that research.

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Newspaper ad for shredded wheat

​“Votes for Women” was such an effective slogan that advertisements, like this one in a 1913 edition of the Wilmington Evening Journal, used it to sell cereal and other products.

Boylan continued as the Delaware coordinator for the online dictionary, which today contains biographies of some 3,500 women described as grassroots suffragists, including about 68 suffrage leaders from Delaware.

She also curated an exhibition in Morris Library, which opened in the Special Collections Gallery in February 2020, then closed when campus facilities closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and became a digital exhibit.

To view the exhibition online, visit Votes for Delaware Women: A Centennial Exhibition.

The book and the related projects have all put Boylan in touch with descendants of some of the original suffragists.

“That’s been one of the fun parts of this project,” she said. “It’s been rewarding for me as a historian to help families fill in some of the parts of their own history.”

Article by Ann Manser; photos courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society and UD Library, Museums and Press

Published Aug. 17, 2021

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"Votes for Delaware Women" by Professor Emerita Anne M. Boylan is the first book-length examination of the battle for suffrage in the First State and a time when the nation's attention was focused on Dover.
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