Local suffragists deserve recognition and thanks
Local suffragists gave so much so that women can have the freedom to vote today.
The earliest meetings involving Sussex suffragists in their campaign for ratification of the suffrage amendment were held almost simultaneously in private homes in Bridgeville and Seaford Sept. 11, 1919. They had been organized by Mrs. Etta Gray Jones and Mrs. Willard Morse. By unanimous vote Mrs. Jones was elected chairman of the Bridgeville branch of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, a branch of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which numbered about 2,000,000 members at that time.
Mrs. George Hill was elected vice chairman; Miss Mary Ledenhen, secretary; and Mrs. Gertrude Cannon, treasurer. The elected officers to the Seaford branch of the DESA included: Mrs. Willard Morse, chairman; Mrs. John Eskridge, vice chairman; Miss Alice Morgan, secretary; and Mrs. L. B. Cannon, treasurer. This meeting and election of officers was held so that the leaders might attend the upcoming 23rd annual convention of the DESA in Dover Oct. 24.
By Sept. 30, 23 suffrage centers had been formed in Delaware and 25,000 pieces of literature had been sent throughout the state. An executive board meeting was held in Dover at the home of Mrs. Henry Ridgely, on that date, at which time plans were formulated to ask the Legislature to hold a special session which would act solely on the suffrage issue. Local women who were in attendance were Mrs. John Eskridge and Mrs. Willard Morse of Seaford, and Mrs. Robert G. Houston and Mrs. Ben Ableman of Georgetown.
I do not know why the towns of Laurel and Bridgeville were not in attendance. Mrs. John Eskridge, the new vice chairman for the Seaford Branch, had been named by the executive board Sept. 13, 1919, to act as co-chairman, with Mrs. Robert Houston of Georgetown, for all of Sussex County.
For reasons unknown to me, the date of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Convention was changed from Oct. 24 to Nov. 10, 1919. Local delegates from Seaford were Mrs. Willard Morse (formerly Annie Fisher), Mrs. John Eskridge (formerly Miss Mary S. Phillips), Miss Mae Cooper, Mrs. G. Fred Calloway (former Miss Mary Layton of Bridgeville), Mrs. Minos Short, Mrs. H. M. Manning, and Mrs. Calhoun Ross.
Delegates from Georgetown included Mrs. Dan Layton, Mrs. Annie Beach, Mrs. Ben Ableman, Mrs. Howard Stewart, Mrs. Horace Johnson, and Mrs. Robert Houston. Mrs. Harry Humes, Mrs. William Smith, Mrs. S. E. Evans and Mrs. J. S. Short represented Milford. Two of the women from Seaford were elected officers of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association at this convention: Mrs. Willard Morse, second vice president; and Mrs. John Eskridge, treasurer.
As a side note, Mrs. Eskridge will be remembered by many Seafordians as the mother-in-law to Seaford school superintendent for 12 years, Millman Prettyman, and wife of Capt. John R. Eskridge, a four-term mayor of Seaford and president of Hastings and Eskridge Lumber Co. of this town. In March of that year Mrs. Eskridge had been named associate chairman of the Delaware workers in the Victory Loan campaign and was in charge of the western section of Sussex County that included the towns of Greenwood, Bridgeville, Seaford. Laurel and Delmar. Mrs. George W. Emery assisted her in the Seaford campaign. I mention this so that you become aware that Mrs. Eskridge was not new to campaign work.
This meeting was important for the suffrage cause in Delaware in that the women were able to speak briefly to Gov. John G. Townsend, and have him respond to them afterward. The Morning News reported, “The delegates were taken in decorated automobiles, about 30, to the State House…where they were met by the governor who welcomed them…. Mrs. Raymond Brown, a vice president of the national association here from New York, then addressed him. “There appear before you today the homemaking and home loving women of Delaware, who are asking that they be granted the same recognition as the men. I feel that neither the state nor nation can wait a day in ratifying the suffrage amendment, and we hope that you, as governor, will use your influence to urge the Legislature to bring about an early ratification.”
To this, Gov. Townsend responded, “While the ladies of Delaware did not have a vote in the election at which I was elected, I think their influence had much to do with my election. I have always stood for suffrage and I assure you that women should have the ballot. I will be glad at any time to give my influence toward giving women the right to vote.”
Is it any wonder that the women of Delaware felt confident that their suffrage rights would soon become law? Furthermore, there had been talk of the suffragists, both pro and anti, being able to speak before the legislators, and in 1920 a special session was called to convene in the Georgetown Courthouse March 17 for this purpose. However, to the dismay of the women, this was not exactly how the meeting unfolded.
Women from both sides of the suffrage issue were present in full force. National speakers from Washington, D.C., New York, Pennsylvania and other states, as well as state and county organizers and leaders and enthusiasts on both sides were all in attendance and expected to be able to have their views heard. Instead, Sen. I. D. Short of Sussex County, when calling the meeting to order and stating its purposes, said it was not called to discuss suffrage. Landreth Layton, Chair of the session, then embarked on a two-hour discourse of why the State School Code and all those associated with it, should be “done away with.”
Finally, Sen. John Palmer suggested that inasmuch as several reports had been made of districts where a vote had been taken on suffrage, and that both sides had representatives present to be heard, that each side be given 10 minutes to present their arguments. The senator then suggested that before that was done that a vote be taken on the sentiment of the crowd on suffrage. Chairman Layton called for “ayes” and nays” and there was a decided demonstration against suffrage. E. J. Windsor of Seaford then challenged the manner in which Layton had called for the vote, “saying it hadn’t given the women a square deal.”
Chairman Layton responded to this rebuke with a message that I don’t believe would be heard today. ”We want always to be fair to the ladies. We think a great deal of them, but we want them to keep in their place. We don’t want them going up and down, running here and there about the state seeking this and that, hunting notoriety and lowering themselves.” Such was the sentiment of many legislators, especially in Sussex, of the suffragists here and elsewhere.
Finally, with 40 minutes left before the meeting was to be adjourned to accommodate those who wanted to catch the afternoon train, Layton gave the women a chance to speak. Mrs. Henry Ridgely of Dover, the president of the Delaware Equal Suffrage League, was the first to speak.
However, Mr. Layton refused to introduce her, so she went to the rostrum and introduced herself. As she spoke, the men in the room began to scrape their feet and talk loudly. This went on for several minutes before Chair Layton pounded the gavel and asked for silence. However, the disorder soon began again, but Layton did not try to stop it a second time.
When the anti-suffragist speaker came forward to speak, a pro-suffragist, Leah Burton of Lewes, protested her speaking saying that the she was not from Delaware and that the meeting speakers were to be from this state. What a glorious end to a remarkable suffrage meeting in Georgetown!
This certainly reinforced the meaning of “The War of the Roses,” a term used to describe the fight between the pro- and anti-suffrage lobbyists who came to Delaware in the spring of 1920 when lobbyists from both sides handed out flowers to the legislators: yellow jonquils from the suffragists and red roses (symbols of chivalry) from the anti-suffragists.
Incidentally, when the 19th Amendment was finally passed in Tennessee early that fall, only two voter registration days remained before the national election was held. Despite the many speeches given by the anti-suffragists and men saying that women really didn’t want to vote, 40,000 Delaware women registered to vote in those two days! The suffragists’ work was really just beginning.
Sue Bramhall is a member of the Georgetown Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.