Delaware Women’s Suffrage Movement: “Barely a footnote”
By Rhonda H. Tuman*
The Delaware Seven – Seven Women from Delaware before boarding the train to the Washington Parade.
Celebrating the present and remembering the past are how we are reminded that the torch of women’s rights is passed to each generation of women. It is the responsibility of succeeding generations to protect and continue securing women’s rights – in and out of the voting booth.
Delaware’s story of women’s suffrage came down to politics as usual. Democrats vs. Republicans, the folks above the canal and those below, men vs. women, and even husband vs. wife. Each time the issue of women’s suffrage was brought before the Delaware General Assembly the measure was squashed.
Women’s voting rights was irrelevant to then-Governor John G. Townsend, Jr. a Sussex County Republican. Delaware’s U.S. Senator James Bayard, a Democrat from the City of Wilmington, was a strong advocate of women’s voting rights. While Governor Townsend did not have a strong position on women voting, he was not above using the women’s voting rights issue to wrestle power away from the political machine of the north.
However, the Sussex County delegation had very strong feelings about women gaining equal status at the voting both. They vehemently opposed women’s voting rights and were not above using whatever means they could to stop Delaware from granting women voting privileges. Delaware could have had a pivotal role in securing women’s rights, but the honor fell to the state of Tennessee in August 1920. Delaware’s Anti Suffragists, opposed women’s rights, because they said that women were “too good, clean” to get involved in politics, which they viewed as dirty, and was corrupted by men.
All seven men, the Sussex County delegation to the State House, opposed women’s voting rights with a vengeance. They refused to even entertain the thought that women would, or should serve in politics, own businesses, and have any input in raising their children.
Florence Bayard Hillis was the state’s suffrage leader. Her brother, Delaware’s U.S. Senator Thomas F. Bayard Jr., who was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage, spoke passionately on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1920, about the need for women’s participation in their government, which started with access to the vote. The Antis’ leader was a powerful socialite, Mrs. Thompson, who wore a red rose to represent the opposition. Delaware suffragists use the yellow jonquil, or rose, as their symbol. The press dubbed the conflict as the “War of the Roses”. Debates were colorful, explosive, and passionate. Delaware women were leaders in the national movement. Mabel Vernon, of Wilmington, DE, and Nevada, spoke at rallies across the country inspiring women and men to take up the cause of women’s voting rights.
The first vote in Delaware’s House was held up when the Speaker of the House was kidnapped and unable to cast his vote. He was held captive in the basement of the Golden Fleece Tavern on the Green in Dover, until the vote was taken. The last chance Delaware had to make history came in April 1920, when the vote for ratification was on the House Agenda, again. It was rumored on that day, that Republican Governor Townsend had dropped his opposition to ratifying the 19th Amendment and would sign the legislation as soon as it hit his desk.
Although Townsend was a native of Sussex County, the seven-member Democrat Sussex County delegation was unmoved by Townsend’s change of heart. They walked out in protest as the vote was being taken. It was over for Delaware and all eyes turned to Tennessee. The suffragists quickly packed their bags and headed to Tennessee, the last state that could write women into history, or wait another seven years. Time was running out, if Tennessee didn’t ratify the Amendment, then the seven years the state’s had to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution would be up soon and they would have to start all over again. It had to be Tennessee.
Meanwhile in Tennessee, Nashville, the state’s capitol, was crowded with people who had lots of interest in the vote of the day, the vote of the century. With wilted collars and frayed nerves, the legislators squared off for the third roll call. A blatant red rose on his breast, Harry Burn–the youngest member of the legislature–suddenly broke the deadlock. Despite his red rose, he voted in favor of the bill. The house erupted into pandemonium. With his “yea”, Burn had delivered universal suffrage to all American women.
The outraged opponents to the bill began chasing Representative Burn around the room. In order to escape the angry mob, Burn climbed out one of the third-floor windows of the Capitol. Making his way along a ledge, he was able to save himself by hiding in the Capitol attic.
When tempers had cooled, Burn was asked to explain the red rose on his lapel and his “yellow-rose” vote. He responded that while it was true he was wearing a red rose, what people could not see was that his breast pocket contained a telegram from his mother in East Tennessee. She urged him to do the right thing and vote in favor of the amendment.
Governor A. H. Roberts signed the bill on August 24, 1920, and two days later, the Nineteenth Amendment became national law. One hundred and forty-four years after the Declaration of Independence, American women had earned the constitutional right to vote–thanks in large part to a woman named Febb Ensminger Burn and her son, Harry.
This is dedicated out of love and respect for the women who came before me and for the next generation of women that will carry the torch of women’s rights and protect those rights.
The information used was often bits and pieces of history that people found, were told, retold, and are as accurate as shared oral histories can be. What is true beyond a doubt is that without the work that women of our past did to insure all women and men the rights of citizenship, we would still be some man’s chattel.
*Rhonda Tuman is the President, Sussex County Women’s Democrat Club, and President of Girl Power Delaware and Women Networking in Sourthern Delaware, Inc. and a member of Delaware ERANow.
Delaware State Historical Society
Library of Congress
PBS Companion Book to Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony
Abigail Adams Diaries
First Ladies of the United States
The United State Senate
Wilmington Moring News and Evening Journal
Sussex Countian Newspaper
Coastal Point Pilot Newspaper
Delaware Technical & Community College, Stephen Betz Library, Rare Book Room
Selected Papers of Mabel Ridgley
CD The Original History of the Women’s Rights Movement, told by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Friends