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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
“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
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
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
“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
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
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
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, 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
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.
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
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.
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.
Article by Andrea Boyle Tippett
, photos by
Michele Walfred and courtesy of University of Delaware Library, Museums
and Press, Hagley Museum and Library, National Archives, Library of
Originally published March 25, 2022