By Maame Agyemang and Maggie Inglis
Students, Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware
Edited and updated by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Naomi Barrett was a fiery figure within the militant suffrage movement, yet she remains elusive in the historical record. An image of Barrett, printed in Doris Stevens’s Jailed for Freedom, suggests that she was in her thirties or forties when she participated in watchfire protests at the White House in 1919. In fact, she was twenty. Delaware sources identify her as the widow of Lawrence Barrett, living on Shipley Street in Wilmington in 1918, and a munitions worker; local newspaper notices and decennial censuses provide clues to the rest of her life. Documentation of her suffrage activities derives entirely from Delaware newspaper and National Woman’s Party (NWP) sources.
Barrett gained attention for her suffrage activism when she participated, along with her mother and thirteen other Delaware women in a February, 1917, NWP “silent sentinel” picket of the White House. She acquired notoriety as a result of January, 1919, watchfire protest, when she and a group of munitions workers that included Catherine Boyle burned Woodrow Wilson’s speeches about democracy on the sidewalk outside the White House. She was arrested on January 13, 1919. With such tactics, the NWP sought to pressure the Senate to follow the lead of the House in passing the Nineteenth Amendment and sending it to the states for ratification. They focused particular attention on Wilson, arguing that he should be held responsible for the Senate’s delay.
On the occasion of her arrest, Barrett joined other Delaware militants Catherine Boyle, Adelina Piunti, and Mary E. Brown, for a total of twenty-three women arrested that day and taken to the Washington house of detention, then into police court to be tried and sentenced. Others received sentences of five days; Naomi Barrett’s case was held over to the following day. It seems likely that Barrett was a charismatic suffragist for the way in which other suffragists responded to her court appearance. As she was charged with setting fires on the White House grounds, the suffragists in the room erupted into applause. Unable to restore silence, the judge began to sentence five of the disruptive applauders for contempt, when one of them fainted and had to be carried from the courtroom. Despite the ensuing chaos, with the judge leaving the bench, and the fainting woman (Emma Pflaster) being taken away in an ambulance, Naomi Barrett received a five-day sentence in the Occoquan workhouse, a facility that another suffragist described as “anything but pleasant.” Once there, she joined other suffragists in a hunger strike.
Upon her release and return to Delaware, Naomi Barrett, along with Mary E. Brown and Catherine Boyle, was a guest of honor at a “delightful . . . luncheon” for Florence Bayard Hilles, held at Wilmington’s Hotel Du Pont by the Delaware Branch of the NWP. A local newspaper reported that the honorees “looked none the worse for their experience, but proud that they had been imprisoned for the cause of political freedom for women.” Like the others, Naomi Barrett received a gold commemorative “prison gate” pin.
Born Naomi Schopfer (or Schopferer) in Philadelphia on March 9, 1899, in 1900 the infant lived with her Delaware-born parents, Charles L. and Agnes (Keehan) Schopferer, in the Wilmington home of Charles’s brother, Simon. The Schopferers were children of German immigrants; Agnes’s parents had been born in Ireland, and Agnes worshipped at a local Catholic Church. Naomi’s was a working-class family, with her father and uncle laboring as skilled tradesmen at the American Car and Foundry Company. Tragically, on a brutally hot day in June, 1906, Charles died suddenly of heat exhaustion while on the job. Agnes and seven-year-old Naomi were his only immediate survivors. In 1912, when Naomi was thirteen, her mother remarried. Her husband was Harry Yerger, a widower and the proprietor of a local picture framing shop, at which Naomi later worked as a frame-maker. She attended elementary school in Wilmington and completed three years of high school.
The extent to which her growing-up experiences shaped Naomi’s suffrage activism is difficult to pin down, but her mother’s suffrage advocacy was clear by May, 1914, when Agnes Yerger committed herself to march in the suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. By February 1917, Naomi had shortened her surname to Schopfer and joined a group of Wilmington “wage earning women,” including her mother, Mary E. Brown, and Annie Arniel, all of whom journeyed to Washington to picket the White House as “silent sentinels.” In April of that year, when she was just eighteen years of age, Naomi and her mother, along with over two hundred local woman, signed up with Florence Bayard Hilles to “register for defense work” during the just-declared war.
At some point between April of 1917 and January of 1919, Naomi Schopfer became Mrs. Lawrence Barrett of Wilmington, for, along with Catherine Boyle of New Castle, Mary E. Brown of Wilmington, and Adelina Piunti of Wilmington, Naomi Barrett was arrested for participating in the watchfire protest. The historical record is silent on this marriage and on Lawrence Barrett’s fate. In the wake of her arrest, courthouse protest, jail sentence, and five-day incarceration, she returned to Wilmington on January 19, 1919, with Boyle and Brown. The three women were then triumphantly received at the January 23 luncheon at the Hotel Du Pont.
Very soon thereafter, notices in local papers announced the marriage in Elkton, Maryland, of “Miss Naomi Barratt” (sic) or “Mrs. Naomi Barrett” on February 3, 1919, to a U.S. Navy boatswain, Maryland-born Edwin C. Bennett. Thereafter, she was Naomi Bennett, but the similarity between the names Barrett and Bennett has contributed to a variety of mis-identifications in historical sources. Indeed, at least one source lists both a “Naomi Barrett” and a “Naomi Bennett” as suffrage militants.
During the epic struggle over Delaware’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, in March 1920, Naomi Bennett, now the mother of a two-month-old infant, joined a group of NWP co-laborers, including Florence Bayard Hilles, Catherine Boyle, Annie Arniel, and Mary E. Brown, in travelling to Dover to lobby the legislature. Although the effort lasted until early June, in the end, the Delaware legislature refused to ratify. In the years following 1920, Bennett remained connected to the NWP, serving as a Delaware delegate, for instance, to the Party’s 1921 convention in Washington, D.C. Other delegates included Hilles, Mabel Vernon, Boyle, Arniel, and Brown, as well as Naomi’s mother, Agnes Yerger. At the convention, a delegation of African American suffragists, including six from Delaware, confronted the NWP leadership over its refusal to take action on African American women’s exclusion from voting rights in the disfranchising states. In 1929, she journeyed with an NWP delegation to Washington for an event to honor the British suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst. Her last recorded NWP involvement occurred in 1930, when she participated in a Philadelphia conference on “Women in Industry.”
After her marriage to Edwin Bennett, Naomi Barrett Bennett’s life remained entwined with the lives of her mother and step-father for some time, as Edwin continued his seafaring work as a master mariner. Both the 1920 and 1930 censuses found her working with the Yergers in their picture framing shop on Shipley Street in Wilmington. The couple’s daughter, Phyllis E. Bennett, was born on January 16, 1920, just as Delaware’s suffragists were gearing up for the ratification effort. A son, James H. Bennett, born in February, 1923, survived only a few days. By 1940, Phyllis Bennett was a student nurse at Memorial Hospital in Wilmington; after graduation, she remained on the hospital staff for much of her nursing career. By 1940, too, Naomi and Edwin Bennett had moved permanently to Kent County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Edwin worked for a Baltimore-based steamship line. When Edwin died in 1962, the couple were living in the small hamlet of Crumpton. Naomi Bennett died on December 17, 1993 and was buried alongside Edwin in the Crumpton Cemetery. Upon Phyllis’s death in 2004, her remains joined those of her parents.
Note on Sources:
For Naomi Barrett Bennett’s suffrage activism, see Inez Haynes Irwin, The Story of the Woman’s Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1921): 396-97; Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 355, and a photograph following 343; “In the Name of Right and Justice,” Suffragist, 7: 53 (January 25, 1919): 8-9, and “Preserving the Dignity of the Court,” Suffragist, 7:53 (January 25, 1919): 10-11. See also Hazel Hunkins, "Prison Described by the Prisoners," Suffragist, 6:32 (August 31, 1918): 8-9. Naomi Barrett is on the list of those "Decorated for Service," The Suffragist 13 (1920), 209. For local coverage, see “Delaware Suffragists Leave for Picket Duty” Morning News, February 19, 1917 p. 12; “Mrs. Weed to Urge Suffrage Cause,” Wilmington Evening Journal, January 13, 1919, 2 (which identifies her as a munitions worker); “Jailed for Applauding Suffragist from Here,” Wilmington Morning News, January 16, 1919, 1; “Were Treated Well, Say Suffragists,” Wilmington Evening Journal, January 21, 1919, 2; and “Farewell Luncheon Given Mrs. Hilles: Delaware Suffragists Greet Women Who Came From Prison,” Wilmington Morning News, January 23, 1919, 3.
Useful genealogical material can be gleaned from the decennial censuses and vital records available on Ancestry.com and familysearch.org, as well as these newspaper articles: Morning News, June 30, 1906 p. 1 (Charles Schopferer’s death); Evening Journal, February 5, 1919, p. 14 (marriage to Edwin C. Bennett); Morning News, October 20, 1919, p. 1 (Edwin Bennett’s Coast Guard experience); ibid., February 13, 1952, p. 4 (Agnes Yerger’s death); ibid, February 13, 1962, p. 22 (Edwin Bennett’s death). Naomi Bennett’s, Edwin Bennett’s, and Phyllis Bennett’s burials in the Crumpton Cemetery, Crumpton, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, are recorded on findagrave.org.
For general context on Delaware’s militant suffragists, see Constance J. Cooper, “Women Warriors,” Delaware Today (October 1995): 14-18. The best study of the suffrage movement in Delaware is Carol E. Hoffecker, “Delaware’s Woman Suffrage Campaign,” Delaware History, 20:3 (Spring-Summer, 1983): 149-67.