Left: probably made 1915; made of DuPont "Fabrikoid"; carried in parades suspended from a vertical pole. First carried in a parade on May 1, 1915.
| Interest in woman's rights in Delaware grew slowly in the
nineteenth century. For many years, the only voice raised in Delaware on
behalf of a woman’s right to own property, to control her own money,
and to vote was that of Mary Ann Sorden Stuart
of Greenwood. Then in
1896 women organized the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, a
statewide group affiliated with NAWSA, founded by Susan B. Anthony and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The suffrage battle really began to heat up in Delaware in 1913. Failure to get the state legislature to pass a bill that would give women the right to vote made the state's small group of suffragists determined to gain so much public support that the legislators would have to approve the vote for women in 1915. Street-corner rallies and parades soon came to be more important than club meetings and teas in women's homes for spreading the message. Up and down the state sped Florence Bayard Hilles's powerful automobile, dubbed the Votes for Women Flyer, bringing the suffrage message to towns and hamlets in all three counties.
On Saturday, May 2, 1914, Delaware suffragists held what turned out to be their largest parade in Wilmington. More than 600 people marched, and thousands jammed the streets and hung out of windows to see the parade march by. Three grand marshalls--Florence Bayard Hilles representing New Castle County, Mary Slaughter representing Kent County, and Miriam Gray representing Sussex County--led the parade. They wore white dresses and the purple, yellow, and white sashes of the Congressional Union, a national woman's political organization, and each carried a yellow banner emblazoned with her county's name. Next came a band playing "Onward Christian Soldiers," followed by women, men, children, floats, and automobiles divided into 12 sections or divisions. All of the women in-the parade except the college women wore white, while the men wore business suits. College women wore their caps and gowns. The Homemakers section contained the most marchers, while African-American women marched in the Equal Suffrage Study Club.
Unfortunately, no amount of talking could change enough legislators' minds. Once again, the General Assembly turned down votes for women. Delaware's suffragists then joined those from all the other states to seek an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The focus of the battle shifted from the states to the nation's capital.
In Washington, the leaders of the Congressional Union began to use some of the extreme tactics that British suffragists had used so successfully, like heckling, in addition to the more standard parades and meeting with Congressional delegates. Delaware's own Mabel Vernon fearlessly interrupted President Woodrow Wilson on July 4, 1916, when he spoke at a labor gathering, and demanded in a loud voice:
She was quickly taken out of the room by a secret service agent, and the incident received negative publicity. The Congressional Union then turned to a new technique: picketing the White House. The Congressional Union held the political party in power, the Democrats, responsible for the lack of action on the Susan B. Anthony suffrage amendment to the Constitution. They particularly sought to force the party's leader, President Wilson, into action.
Picketing began in January 1917. On February 18 a delegation of 15 Delawareans joined the cause as pickets, or Silent Sentinels, as they came to be called:
March 1 was Delaware Day on the picket line at the White House. Despite rain and snow, Delaware's delegates marched behind Mabel Vernon from the Congressional Union's headquarters to the White House wearing bright yellow slickers and hats. Florence Bayard Hilles carried the state's banner and others carried signs with slogans such as MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR THEIR LIBERTY?
The pickets upset President Wilson, who tried to dodge the issue. He thought the suffragists unpatriotic for their militancy once the United States entered World War I. Some women who wanted the right to vote as much as the members of the Congressional Union did agree with President Wilson. The other pro-suffrage group, the National American Women Suffrage Association, with its Delaware affiliate the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, used less militant tactics. But the Silent Sentinels would not go away.
In June 1917 angry crowds began to rip down banners they found unpatriotic, and the police began to arrest the female pickets on the charge of blocking traffic. Arrests did not stop the Sentinels, so soon they had to face court trials. When given the choice between paying a fine or going to jail, the suffragists always chose jail. Two of the first six suffragists jailed for three days rather than pay a fine of $25 were from Delaware: Mabel Vernon and Annie Amiel. Florence Bayard Hilles followed soon thereafter. She chose sixty days in jail rather than pay a $25 fine. Pardoned by President Wilson after only three days in jail, the Sentinels would not give up their posts. So the arrests continued, and the sentences grew longer. A few particularly brave women went on hunger strikes while in jail, forcing the government to force-feed them. This action was so unpopular with the public that arrests stopped. Finally in March 1918 the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled the arrests illegal.
Then the suffrage protestors moved across the street from the White House to Lafayette Square. Arrests began again, this time for holding meetings on public property. As winter came on, the protestors lit watchfires, for which there were more arrests.
In all, seven Delawareans went to jail for their suffrage work.
Of this group, Annie Amiel spent the most time in jail. A worker in a leather factory in Wilmington, Annie Arniel was arrested 8 times and served a total of 103 days. At one of her arrests, when she was picketing Congress, she was knocked senseless by the police.
Were the efforts of the protestors successful? Eventually President Wilson urged Congress to pass the Susan B. Anthony Suffrage Amendment, which it finally did in May and June 1919 after long debate in both chambers. Delaware Representative Caleb R. Layton voted for the amendment. In the Senate, L. Heisler Ball also supported it but Josiah 0. Wolcott voted against it. Some say the amendment would have passed without the protestors, perhaps even more quickly, but others say that protest was needed to get national attention and force Congressional action.
But women still would not get the vote if 36 states did not ratify the amendment. Within 10 months, 35 states had ratified the Nineteenth, or Susan B. Anthony, Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. Only one more state was needed. Of the states remaining, Delaware seemed the best bet, for it had a Progressive Republican governor, John G. Townsend, Jr., who was in favor of woman suffrage, and a Republican General Assembly. From March to early June 1920, therefore, the eyes of the nation were focused on Delaware.
For both Delaware suffragists and anti-suffragists, this was the last chance. The suffragists were led by the socially prominent and indomitable Florence Bayard Hilles of the National Woman's Party (formerly the Congressional Union) and Mabel Lloyd Ridgely of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association (soon to be the League of Women Voters). Their symbol was the yellow jonquil and their colors the traditional purple, white, and yellow of the woman's suffrage movement. The anti-suffragists were led by the equally prominent and indomitable Mary Wilson Thompson and Emily Bissell. Their colors were red, black, and white, and their flower was the red rose. Some commentators came to call the ensuing battle in Dover 'The War of the Roses."
To the suffragists, ratification was a question of equality and simple justice. To the anti-suffragists, ratification overstepped the bounds of states' rights and would reduce women's special moral position in society.
Would ratification pass or would it fail? Neither side was confident of victory, so both spared no effort in their attempt to influence legislators and their constituents. Both sides held parades and meetings in Dover and throughout the state, particularly in Sussex County, where the deciding votes lay. One of the largest rallies was held on the Dover Green under the leadership of the DESA. Bands, decorated automobiles, and representatives from every town in Delaware turned out to help influence legislators. The pro-suffrage forces even resorted to dropping leaflets from airplanes to catch people's attention.
On May 5, the Delaware Senate ratified by a vote of 11 to 6. Woman suffrage stood just eighteen House votes away from victory. Lobbying pressure became intense. The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, put strong pressure on Democratic legislators, and the three du Pont cousins urged ratification of the amendment, their first agreement on anything since their acrimonious business split. Yet enough anti-suffrage stalwarts, like Democrat "Bull" McNabb of Wilmington, held out against the suffrage pressure to keep the decision in doubt. Those who opposed woman suffrage had many reasons, from hostility to giving African American women the vote to a belief in the innate intellectual inferiority of women to the fear that women would vote for Prohibition.
Finally, exhausted from months of lobbying pressure, the members of the House of Representatives agreed to bring the session to close on a set day, whether or not the suffrage bill came forward for a vote. And so the attempt to make Delaware, the first state to ratify the Constitution, the last state necessary to complete the enfranchisement of the American people, ended with a whimper instead of a bang. The House adjourned without formally voting because it had become clear that there were not enough votes for passage. The anti-suffragists rejoiced, and Mrs. Thompson was lifted aloft in a chair. But their victory proved to be short lived.
Suffragists had to look elsewhere for the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Victory came a few months later in Tennessee, where by the margin of just one vote, a young man ensured all women the right to vote in honor of his mother.
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