Commentary: Delaware is ground zero for fight for 19th Amendment

March is Women’s History Month, and Delaware looms large in the fight for women’s franchise. There are many lessons to learn about this particular battle for the 19th Amendment but what, you may ask, makes Delaware’s role unique?

Like many things, it all came down to a question of timing. After the end of World War I, the nation focused special attention on expanding the vote to women. It was considered a “make or break time” for the suffragettes. They had the endorsement of 35 states, and needed one more to pass the 19th Amendment. Which of the states’ that hadn’t yet voted would most likely put them over the top? The question for suffragettes was which state should they concentrate their limited resources — which was more likely to support their cause? Should they target “Tennessee” or “Delaware?” Because Tennessee was deemed insufficiently progressive, Delaware was selected, and our state became a battleground.

Many modern historic assumptions about the Delaware 19th amendment fight are simplistic, and in the end flat out wrong. The battle did not pit women against reactionary men. Actually, women were leaders of both the pro- and anti-suffragette sides. Mabel Vernon and Florence Bayard Hilles led the fight for the 19th Amendment. Ms. Vernon was one of the founders of the National Women’s Party, and a major national spokesperson for expanding the vote. Florence Bayard Hilles was part of the powerful Bayard family, one of the most eminent and historical families in Delaware politics.

The leaders of those who opposed expanding the vote were also women. Mary Thompson was a prominent leader of society as was Emily Bissell, a reformer who later originated “Christmas Seals.” They believed that women should stay aloof from the dirty world of politics. Similarly neither the Democrats or Republicans parties were united on whether suffrage should be extended to women, with strong supporters on both sides.

Coming down to the wire, the state was well divided, but you could tell where your neighbors stood by certain symbolic items. You could, for example, recognize partisans by their boutonnieres; supporters of the 19th Amendment wore white flowers; those opposed wore red, and often red dresses. It was known as the “War of the Roses.”

Both sides campaigned hard, though the suffragette’s tactics were seen as particularly unorthodox. To prevent a loss on a particular vote, those who favored the amendment kidnapped the Speaker of the Delaware House. The Speaker was locked in the basement of “The Golden Fleece” bar in Dover!

Ethnic campaigning was also an issue. To encourage Irish-American support, the suffragettes recruited the support of Emanon De Valera, the future president of Eire. Ironically, it should be noted, in their first independent election, Sinn Fein, De Valera’s party, wasn’t enthusiastic in Ireland about the issue and fielded no female candidates. They were divided also.

In July the Delaware Senate voted for the amendment, but the house in the end simply adjourned, and thus the bill was defeated. On Aug. 20, 1920, Tennessee passed the bill and became the 36th state to do so, thus amending the U.S. Constitution.

Come and join the conversation with historian and re-enactor Kaitlyn Dykes at the Dover Library’s History Book Club on Thursday, March 21 at 4 p.m. and learn more about a fascinating time in history. Call Larry Koch at 335-8344 for more Information.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Koch, Ed.D., a retired educator originally from Maine, now resides in Magnolia and is the organizer and moderator of the History Book Club at the Dover Public Library.

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