By Grace Simmons and Sophia Giannetta
Students, Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware
Edited by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Mrs. Victor du Pont, Sr., born Josephine Anderson in Philadelphia 1853, married into Delaware’s corporate dynasty: the du Ponts. Belonging to one of the wealthiest families in Delaware, Mrs. Victor du Pont leveraged her financial means and political power to sustain Delaware suffragists through the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and beyond.
During her young adult years, she lived in the shadow of her husband, Victor du Pont, Jr., whom she married in l880 and with whom she had one child, also named Victor. Although she always styled herself “Mrs. Victor du Pont,” her husband’s death in 1911 seems to have freed her to engage in public activism. The growing suffrage movement in Delaware and her friendship with leading suffragist Florence Bayard Hilles allowed Mrs. du Pont to find her voice within the militant sector of the movement. Early in 1915, they worked together for a state suffrage amendment, an undertaking that failed; by September of that year, a Wilmington newspaper was referring to her as “one of the leading suffragists of Delaware.” When Hilles became the Delaware Chairman of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), Mrs. du Pont served as a vice-chairman, a position she held on and off for years. Mrs. du Pont was particularly active in promoting subscriptions for The Suffragist, the newspaper of Alice Paul’s Congressional Union (CU) and later the National Woman’s Party, and remained a regular contributor to the NWP after 1920. Beginning in 1918, she served on the NWP’s national council.
Not only did Mrs. du Pont put her financial means behind the cause of woman suffrage but it appears that she joined Florence Bayard Hilles in seeking to defuse anti-suffragists’ use of racist arguments to derail the federal amendment. By April 1920, with the amendment needing one more state for ratification, the campaign heated up Delaware. Within the National Woman’s Party there were divisions over the inclusion of “colored women” in the effort, but Florence Bayard Hilles reached out to African American suffragists, speaking to the Equal Suffrage Study Club in Wilmington, and inviting the group to join the NWP. The Philadelphia activist and “silent sentinel” Dora Kelly Lewis, who had been arrested and jailed for picketing the White House, expressed alarm that “the antis have gone all about in Smyrna [Delaware] … telling [the negroes] that Mrs. Hilles wants them all” to attend a meeting at which both du Pont and Hilles were to speak. Because Delaware was a segregated state and the Smyrna branch did not admit blacks, “the injection of the negro question could easily wreck all our hopes.” In the end, no African American women attended the meeting, but in her speech du Pont, a suffragist “for fifty years,” underscored her confidence “‘that I and all Delaware women will vote for President next November.’” In an earlier speech to the state legislature, Mrs. du Pont had explicitly criticized anti-suffragists for arguing against the suffrage amendment because it would enfranchise African American women. Suffrage, she stated, was “a question of principle and democracy.” More to the point, “the colored women’s vote in Delaware is a ‘boogie’ that has been worked for all it is worth and a good deal more.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of African American women’s voting rights, her speech reminded legislators that African American women constituted a small proportion of the potential voting pool.
Delaware failed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in June 1920; in August, Tennessee became the 36th state to do so and the amendment became the law of the land. Delaware’s ratification would finally come in 1923. Mrs. du Pont continued to be active in the National Woman’s Party and supported the NWP’s push for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), regularly opening her Wilmington home for meetings. She was also an avid prohibitionist. In 1933, she led the “escort of honor” at Alva Belmont’s funeral; soon thereafter, she suffered a serious fall, breaking a hip. Her final years were spent as an invalid, as a result both of the fall and of almost complete deafness. When Mrs. du Pont died in Wilmington on February 13, 1943, the NWP eulogized her as “an active and generous member of the Delaware Branch” and a “gallant warrior and ally.”
For her suffrage work see: History of Woman Suffrage, VI: 1900-1920, ed. Ida Husted Harper (New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922), 102; “The Suffrage Storm Center,” The Suffragist, 8:3 (April 1920): 28-31, with a photograph of du Pont and Hilles together on p. 28; “Delaware’s Second Chance,” The Suffragist, 8:4 (May 1920): 53-55, 70-72; “Forces For and Against Suffrage in Delaware,” The Suffragist, 8:5 (June 1920): 85-87; “Women: Their Page,” Wilmington Every Evening, September 1, 1915; “Launch Delaware Suffrage Campaign,” Wilmington Morning News, January 8, 1917, 1, 2; “Suffrage Plea by Mrs. Victor DuPont,” Wilmington Evening Journal, January 28, 1919, 16; and “Suffragists in Rally at Smyrna,” Wilmington Evening Journal, April 16, 1920, 17.
One can trace her NWP roles and donations to the cause in The Suffragist and its successor Equal Rights. Dora Kelly Lewis’s April 14, 1920 letter to her daughter, is part of the Dora Kelly Lewis Correspondence at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA: Collection 2137, Box 1, folder “Correspondence March-December 1920.”
Note that her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Everett du Pont, was also “Mrs. Victor du Pont.” Separating the two women’s roles within the NWP can be challenging, but Josephine du Pont’s activism is clear from the obituaries that appeared in the New York Times, February 14, 1943, 49; and Equal Rights, 3:49 (March 1943): 26.
For broad context on suffrage in Delaware, see History of Woman Suffrage, VI: 86-103; and Carol E. Hoffecker, “Delaware’s Woman Suffrage Campaign,” Delaware History, 20:3 (Spring-Summer, 1983): 149-67.
A portrait photograph can be found at: http://digital.hagley.org/islandora/object/islandora:2199752