By Veronica Cantoran-Torres and Cameron Miles
Students, Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware
Edited by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Mary E. Brown was born in Delaware in 1867. Brown was the daughter of Thomas Crossley (or Crosley), a captain in the First Delaware Regiment during the Civil War, and later an engine and locomotive builder, and his wife Mary, who served as a field nurse during the war. In 1891, Mary Crossley married Elmer Valentine, an upholsterer from Pennsylvania; the couple lived in Wilmington, Delaware, where their son Walter was born in 1894. Elmer Valentine died of Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder, in 1902, at the age of 36, leaving Mary a widow living with her in-laws in Wilmington. In 1904, Mary Crossley Valentine married John L. Brown, a widower from Maryland who worked as a laborer, then as a car builder in a car shop, and later as the stable boss in a hotel stable in Wilmington. Their daughter Madeline Brown (later Brice), was born around 1904. At some point, Mary Brown turned her hand to skilled dressmaking; records from the 1920s and 1930s identify her as a seamstress and dressmaker. By 1930, she was again a widow, now heading her own household, with her daughter Madeline Brice, son-in-law George M. Brice, and three relatives.
Brown contributed to the crusade for women’s rights and woman suffrage through her active and long-lasting participation in the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Although it is unclear when she joined the NWP, by 1916 she was serving on the Circulation Committee for the NWP periodical, The Suffragist; in January, 1917, she participated in an NWP-sponsored mass meeting in Wilmington designed to pressure the state legislature to pass a state suffrage amendment; and by 1919, she was the NWP’s Delaware State Press Chairman. She enjoyed her most memorable role as a militant suffragist by taking her place on the White House watchfire and picket lines to advocate for woman suffrage.
In January, 1919, like hundreds of militants, she made her way to Lafayette Park where the NWP held a watchfire designed to pressure the Senate into passing the Nineteenth Amendment. Led by state chairman Florence Bayard Hilles, Mary E. Brown joined other working-class women such as Adelina Piunti, Naomi Barrett, Annie Arniel, and Catherine Boyle, several of them co-workers of Hilles at a munitions plant in New Castle, in picketing and being arrested. Brown served five days in the Washington, D.C., jail. While in jail, Mary sent a telegram to her husband, John L. Brown, signed “Mother,” to let him know of her prison sentence and to note that Annie Arniel would be “home tomorrow.” She soon received a message from her Philadelphia-based son Walter reading “Congratulations on Your Fight for Democracy.” Upon her return home to Wilmington, Brown told the Evening Journal that her prison experience “was of no severe nature. … We all went on a hunger strike. … Outside of being told not to make so much noise when we talked the prison matron was fairly kind to us, [though when] we asked to have fresh air in our cells … the prison authorities decided to turn the heat off entirely and freeze us out.” For her service and sacrifice, Mary E. Brown received a silver pin designed by Alice Paul in 1917; it depicted a jail cell door with a lock and chain attached.
After the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Mary E. Brown continued to be an active member of the NWP, serving as vice-president (1924) and then treasurer (1938) of the Delaware Branch, supporting the group’s campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution (ERA), contributing small sums ($21 in 1925) to the national organization, becoming an NWP delegate to the 1926 Women’s Industrial Conference in Washington, D.C. as an opponent of protective legislation for women workers, attending a meeting in 1933 protesting plans for wholesale dismissals of married women workers, serving as a “sentinel” and escort at the funeral of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont the same year, and in 1938 joining a commemorative event for Susan B. Anthony and the ERA (via a special Pullman car). As late as 1945, she renewed her NWP membership. During those years, too, she served as treasurer of the Wilmington Business and Professional Women’s Club, and attended the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington.
Mary E. Crossley Valentine Brown died in Wilmington, Delaware on Tuesday, December 21, 1948. After a funeral service attended by several NWP notables, she was buried at Mt. Salem Cemetery in Wilmington. Photos of Mary Brown can be found in Doris Stevens’s Jailed for Freedom, and on the website socialwelfarehistory.com.
For an overview of Mary E. Brown’s life and work as a militant suffragist, as well as images of obituaries and the two 1919 telegrams and a photo, see: “Mary E. Brown, Suffragist and Advocate for Women’s Rights,” The Social Welfare History Project, socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/woman-suffrage/brown-mary-e-suffragist/ (Accessed October 20, 2016). The biographical sketch contains several errors, however; they are corrected here.
For biographical basics, consult decennial censuses, marriage records, and city directories available on Ancestry.com and familysearch.org. Obituaries appeared in the Wilmington Journal-Every Evening December 21 and 28, 1948. Her NWP-related activities are documented in Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 356, and a photo following 343; the NWP periodicals The Suffragist and Equal Rights, available on line through the Gerritsen Collection (http://gerritsen.chadwyck.com/home.do); and the New York Times. For her remarks after her prison stint, see “Were Treated Well, Say Suffragists,” Wilmington Evening Journal, January 21, 1919, 2. See also “Suffragists Open State Campaign,” Wilmington Evening Journal, January 8, 1917, 10.
For broad context on suffrage in Delaware and NWP picketing, consult Janet Lindenmuth, “Delaware’s Silent Sentinels, Delaware Women in the Fight for Women’s Suffrage.” Widener Law Delaware Library. Last modified March 23, 2012. Accessed October 11, 2015. http://blogs.lawlib.widener.edu/delaware/2012/03/23/delawares-silent-sentinels-delaware-women-in-the-fight-for-womens-suffrage/, and Constance J. Cooper, “Women Warriors,” Delaware Today (October 1995): 14-18.