By Dr. Colleen Hall, Teacher, Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware
Edited by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Adelina Piunti hardly fits the image of a militant woman suffragist: teenaged Italian immigrant, Roman Catholic, farm-worker with a fourth-grade education, ineligible to vote in 1920. But in January 1919, she joined a group of munitions workers from the Bethlehem Steel plant in New Castle, Delaware, who traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in protests and watchfires outside the White House. After that moment, which earned her a mention in Inez Haynes Irwin’s Story of the Woman’s Party, and in newspaper articles, she disappeared from any record of political protest.
Born in Italy on May 25, 1902, Adelina Piunti came to the United States with her mother, Rosa, and three siblings in 1914. Joining her father, Carlo Piunti, who had emigrated a few months earlier, the family settled on their own farm in Mill Creek, New Castle County, Delaware, working the land together. At the time of her suffrage activism, she was sixteen years old. The few traces of her by name in the historical record indicate that she was a munitions worker from New Castle, Delaware, who participated in the January 1919 watchfire protest outside of the White House, designed to pressure the Senate into joining the House in passing the Nineteenth Amendment. Along with Delaware suffragists Catherine Boyle and Naomi Barrett, and nineteen other protestors, Adelina Piunti was arrested and taken to the District of Columbia House of Detention on January 13, 1919.
Prior to her arrest, Piunti was a wartime munitions worker making supplies for the Allied troops overseas. She, along with many other women workers-turned-suffragist activists, worked at the Bethlehem munitions plant in New Castle, Delaware. While employed at the plant, Piunti likely came into contact with Florence Bayard Hilles, a well-known Delaware suffragist and leader within the National Woman’s Party (NWP).
In addition to her connection to Hilles and the NWP, it seems possible that impending changes at the plant motivated Adelina Piunti’s decision to get involved in the militant suffrage movement. Some workers had suffered temporary layoffs in May 1918; during the lull, a few of them, including Florence Bayard Hilles and Catherine Boyle (but not Piunti), traveled to Washington, D.C. in an effort to press Woodrow Wilson to actively urge the Democratic Party, that controlled both houses of Congress, to pass a constitutional amendment for suffrage. Then, in February, 1919, workers at the New Castle plant, which had been independently operated, received official notice that the facility, “will be taken over at noon, Feb. 15th, by the U.S. Government under the control of Major C.S. Demarest as Commanding Officer…a large portion of the present employees remain. Notice to employees to be retained will be issued by the Commanding Officer on Monday, Feb. 17th.” While we cannot be certain, perhaps Adelina Piunti and her coworkers at the New Castle plant anticipated permanent layoffs and redoubled their efforts to achieve full suffrage.
At the January 13, 1919 White House protest in which she participated, Piunti faced harassment from bystanders who sought to grab suffragists’ banners and extinguish their watchfires and from members of the Washington police force. Like her sister Delawareans and others who lit a watchfire and took part in a brief march on that day, Piunti was arrested and spent the night in the house of detention. Although she may have been one of the youngest protestors arrested, it appears that she did not serve any prison time. Piunti’s efforts earned her a place on the list of women “Decorated for Service” in a 1920 issue of The Suffragist.
Following her stint as a militant suffragist, Piunti returned to family labor and family life in Delaware. She married another Italian immigrant, Benjamin (Benny) DiSabatino around 1920; together, they worked on her parents’ farm. Both became naturalized citizens during the 1920s. Later, she and Benny ran a landscaping business in Wilmington. Adelina eventually bore thirteen children, five daughters and eight sons. Benny died in 1940; her son Carlo was killed in a wartime munitions accident at just sixteen years old in October 1944; and her son Peter suffered an accidental death in 1957, when he was 26. Adelina Piunti DiSabatino died in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 8, 1992; after a funeral Mass, she was buried in Cathedral Cemetery.
Adelina Piunti appears in various vital records found on Ancestry.com and familysearch.org, starting with immigration records of her arrival aboard the Duca Degli Abruzzi on October 26, 1914. She, her parents, and her marital family can be found in decennial censuses, 1920, 1930, and 1940.
See also "Delaware Marriage Records, 1913-1954," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F3S7-QB1 : accessed 1 April 2016), Adeline Piunti in entry for Peter DiSabatino and Iona Marie Hamilton, 05 Dec 1953; citing Wilmington, New Castle, Delaware, United States, Hall of Records, Dover; FHL microfilm 2,025,191., "Delaware Marriage Records, 1913-1954," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F3S7-4RK : accessed 1 April 2016), Adeline Piunti in entry for Francis Alfred DiSabatino and Frances Ann Breslin, 10 Aug 1946; citing Wilmington, New Castle, Delaware, Hall of Records, Dover; FHL microfilm 2,025,164., and "Delaware Death Records, 1855-1961," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FN56-P9T : accessed 1 April 2016), Adelina Piunti in entry for Carlo DiSabatino, 25 Oct 1944; citing Wilmington, New Castle, Delaware, United States, Hall of Records, Dover; FHL microfilm 1,944,088. Adelina’s death (recorded under the name of DiSabatino) can be found at: "United States Social Security Death Index," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JR8X-93R : accessed 1 April 2016), Adelina Disabatino, 08 Mar 1992; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).
Newspaper documentation of Adelina’s suffrage activism includes mentions in the following: “In the Name of Right and Justice,” The Suffragist, Vol. 7, Issue 53 (Jan. 25, 1919): 8-9; “Major Pullman to Pursue ‘Cat and Mouse’ Policy in Future,” Washington Herald (January 14, 1919): 3; and Inez Haynes Irwin, The Story of the Woman’s Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1921), 396. There are no company records mentioning her by name; however, the plant did have a “Female Department” during World War I. See: NOTICE, Feb. 14, 1919, Accession 1699 – Bethlehem Steel Company Records, New Castle Plant, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.
A death notice appeared in the Wilmington News-Journal, March 9, 1992.