The League of Women Voters of Sussex County's 19th Amendment Celebration Planning Committee solicited commentary about the 100th anniversary of the amendment granting women the right to vote. The purpose is to educate the public about the history as well as the impact of the passage of the amendment. This is the first commentary to appear in the Cape Gazette.
It was written by Anne M. Boylan, professor emerita of history at the University of Delaware.
In 1897, Georgetown’s Margaret White Houston was a thirty-three year-old wife and mother with three young children at home. That January, she journeyed to Dover to join a delegation of five women addressing the men tasked with writing the new Delaware constitution. The group sought to eliminate the word “male” from the stated qualifications for voting. In other words, she and her colleagues wanted all women in Delaware to have the right to vote.
Allotted two hours to make their case, the women first presented the convention members with a petition, signed by over 3,000 Delawareans, supporting suffrage. Newport’s Martha Churchman Cranston, president of the recently formed Delaware Equal Suffrage Association (DESA), introduced the speakers. Margaret Houston spoke fourth, followed by Carrie Chapman Catt, an organizer from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Catt later became the association’s president.
When it was her turn, Margaret Houston used her time to refute anti-suffrage arguments and to present women’s right to vote as both just and inevitable. “Equal suffrage is coming,” she predicted; to refuse women the right to vote was to attempt to “command the waves to recede only to see the tide steadily coming in.” Delaware, “the little Diamond State,” she reminded her listeners, “was first to adopt the Constitution; … let her be first of her Eastern sisters to enfranchise the woman.”
Her optimism was premature. After listening politely to the suffragists, the men simply offered “our thanks to the ladies” and moved on. Not one of them asked a single question. When completed, the new state constitution eliminated the requirement that voters be white but kept the stipulation that they be male. Undaunted, Margaret Houston returned home to Georgetown. She would spend the next twenty-three years working towards the goal that had brought her to Dover: votes for Delaware women.
This year, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the woman suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Margaret Houston’s experience serves as a reminder of many aspects of the effort to win women’s voting rights.
First, it was a long and difficult journey. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Delaware’s suffragists initially concentrated their work on securing state-level voting rights. In legislative session after legislative session, they addressed the General Assembly—unsuccessfully—in hopes of amending the state constitution. At the same time, they participated in the drive for a federal amendment to the U.S. constitution, collecting thousands of signatures on petitions to Congress, holding parades and rallies, lobbying Delaware’s senators and representatives, and, in some cases, joining “militant” actions such as White House picketing and “watchfire” protests. The state’s African American suffragists, led by Wilmington poet and teacher Alice Dunbar-Nelson, were particularly committed to a constitutional amendment, rightly fearing that the state-by-state approach facilitated the disfranchisement of both black men and black women.
Second, it required coalition-building. Margaret Houston was a founder and first president of the Georgetown New Century Club, an officer in the Delaware Federation of Women’s Clubs, a temperance advocate through the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and a firm supporter of the proposed women’s college in Newark. Through such activities, suffrage leaders found allies and learned how to get things done politically.
Third, it required resources. Margaret Houston had a good education, a supportive husband (lawyer Robert Griffith Houston), household help, and access to legislators’ attention. She accumulated years of experience giving speeches and writing pro-suffrage arguments. Those resources enabled her to serve as a representative for Sussex County suffragists, countering anti-suffrage claims that Sussex women did not want the right to vote.
Finally, winning women’s voting rights entailed losses as well as wins. For Margaret Houston, the most difficult loss was undoubtedly the General Assembly’s failure to provide the final ratifying vote for the suffrage amendment in 1920. Once Tennessee ratified in August, she and others helped organize the Delaware League of Women Voters, which marks its 100th anniversary this year.
Margaret Houston was only one of dozens of Delaware women leaders, black and white, who dedicated themselves to securing women’s full citizenship rights. To learn more about her and others like her, visit the Online Biographical Directory of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States.: https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN