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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
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.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
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
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.”
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
Alice Dunbar Nelson moved to Wilmington in 1902 and became a key
player in the struggle for suffrage and equality for women and African
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.
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
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
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
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.
“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