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Anne Boylan, professor, author outlines for Padua Academy students role of women in gaining right to vote with 19th Amendment

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Anne Boylan speaks with students at Padua Academy. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

On Nov. 8, young women from Padua Academy and schools across Delaware and the country voted, most — if not all — for the first time.

It’s a right that other women in Delaware did not have until 1920, following the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Students in Colleen Hall’s social studies class at Padua had a chance recently to hear about the history of women’s suffrage in the United States and the passage of the 19th Amendment. It was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, giving women the federal right to vote for the first time just months before that year’s presidential election.

The guest speaker at Padua on the afternoon of Oct. 26 was Anne M. Boylan, professor emerita of history and women’s studies at the University of Delaware. She taught at the university for 30 years and remains active. Her latest book, “Votes for Delaware Women,” chronicles the fight for suffrage in the First State. Published in 2021, it is the first book-length study of the subject in Delaware.

Delaware’s General Assembly had the opportunity to make the state the final one to ratify the 19th Amendment. That distinction went to Tennessee instead. Boylan spoke about the major organizations that supported suffrage in Delaware.

Support for the franchise was not segregated along racial or gender lines, she said.

“We know that’s not true,” Boylan said. “We have men who were suffragists and women who were anti.”

Many opponents, she noted, believed that women should stay out of the spotlight and worried about the effects of granting the franchise to all adults.

“They really believed that women voting would turn gender roles upside-down,” Boylan said.

She encouraged students to think about the issue like they do issues today. It could be quite taxing on a marriage if a husband and wife were on opposite sides of a very contentious debate.

There were differing approaches to the issue. Some in the movement brought their children to rallies. Others wrote letters to the editors of various newspapers or organized events. One was more mainstream and involved rallies, talking to legislators, and trying to get referendums passed. The militant supporters would call attention to themselves with their actions. Some would stand outside the White House, Boylan told the students, and others were arrested and jailed “as a way of calling attention to their cause.

“That approach to winning women’s suffrage was extremely controversial.”

Boylan said the militants’ thoughts were that meeting with a legislator was boring, but getting arrested in public made for great art in the daily newspapers. Once imprisoned, some of the activists went on hunger strikes. Although the number of militants was small compared to the mainstream supporters, they had an effect on public sentiment.

“When the suffragists showed they were willing to die for the cause, public sentiment did turn,” she told the students.

Boylan also mentioned the Night of Terror, Nov. 14, 1917, when 33 women who had been jailed for picketing outside the White House for months were beaten and tortured by prison guards. That also helped turn the tide.

Efforts to grant women the right to vote had languished in Congress long before its final passage. A previous amendment, the 17th, which called for the direct election of senators to the U.S. Congress, helped change that. Several senators who had opposed suffrage were voted out of office, including Willard Saulsbury of Delaware.

Saulsbury had been appointed to the Senate in 1913, the last time they were not elected. When he ran for election in 1919 — the first time he had to face voters — he was defeated by L. Heisler Ball, and his loss was attributed to his refusal to support the 19th Amendment, according to several sources.