Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biographical Sketch of Mary E. (Mrs. John R.) Milligan, 1852-1915

By Sarah Voegler, undergraduate student, Binghamton University

Engrained deeply in the prominent Woman's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the driven Mrs. J.R Milligan broke from the bondage imposed by Victorian society and drew on her involvement in the W.C.T.U to advocate for women's suffrage.

Mary E. Milligan was born in May 1852 in Pennsylvania Although Mrs. Milligan was a common character in Wilmington, Delaware newspapers for her activism, she resided in St. Georges with her husband, Reverend John R. Milligan (married in 1874), and their four children, Rebecca (born in 1876), Josephine (born in 1878), Sarah (born in 1881), and Howard (born in 1887). Later in life, in 1914, Mrs. Milligan experienced kidney trouble which resulted in her travel to Maryland for treatment. Although the exact date of her death is not documented, a 1916 W.C.T.U history article gave credit to the deceased Mrs. Milligan, which leads one to assume that she died shortly after her kidney trouble, the latest possible year, likely 1915 or 1916.

When Mrs. Milligan was not raising her children, she also explored her spiritual side by becoming a part of the religious community. Membership in the First Presbyterian Church Society was a core piece of the Milligans' identity. Similar to her husband, Mrs. Milligan was extremely involved in the church. For instance, not only was she the chairman of the church's festival committee in 1893, but also she was elected as the First Presbyterian Church's President of the Ladies Aid Department in that same year. Expanding her reach even further in 1895, she became the founding President of the Young Women's Christian Association in St. Georges, Delaware, in which she oversaw the renovation of the organization's building. In that same year, she contributed to a version of the Every Evening newspaper, highlighting religious and charitable aspects of Wilmington, that was written entirely by women. Mrs. Milligan's artistic side was channeled via the church's choir in the year 1904, in which she became known as a leader in this group.

Involvement in the Presbyterian Church and the local community eventually led Mrs. Milligan to proselytize her values by taking an active role in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1896. The first instance of Mrs. Milligan's participation occurred in 1896 at a rally in which the W.C.T.U advocated for equal suffrage as well as prohibition. It was documented by a local newspaper that Mrs. Milligan expressed her beliefs at this event, indicating the need for a new clause in the Constitution that permitted equal suffrage. At this event, her aptitude for activism surfaced as she illustrated the importance of using petitions when canvassing for this cause. Ascending to the upper levels of the organization, Mrs. Milligan became Delaware's superintendent for temperance instruction, and even traveled as far as Georgetown to deliver addresses on the subject. Throughout the years 1895-1914, Mrs. Milligan used her position to involve herself in the education system by offering prizes to promising scholars in public schools, thereby spreading the message of temperance to young people. On a similar note, Mrs. Milligan also met with her colleagues in the W.C.T.U from all over the state to discuss the union's participation in the public school system. Specifically, Mrs. Milligan met with local assembly members to convey the need for female education in 1911. Additionally, on the same day, she presented correct methods for temperance instruction. Ultimately, infusing temperance into the daily lives of students was a clear passion of Mrs. Milligan's that enhances her legacy.

In the year 1910, Mrs. Milligan was honored with the opportunity to make an address in front of the twenty-third annual W.C.T.U Convention in New Castle, Delaware. True to her values, Mrs. Milligan revealed a sense of pride while indicating to her audience that several saloons had been closed in neighboring counties. Mrs. Milligan's hard work was recognized by her fellow suffragist peers. In fact, in 1913, she had the honor of attending the New York City Suffrage Parade with one other delegate from the W.C.T.U. The next year, she joined her fellow Delawarean suffragists in Washington, D.C for a demonstration for equal suffrage.

1914 is the last year of Mrs. Milligan's participation in the W.C.T.U and the fight for equal suffrage. Soon after her final march, Mrs. Milligan fell ill with her kidney ailment. Nonetheless, Mrs. Milligan's constant involvement in local politics inspired her colleagues and emphasized the need for strong education for both sexes. Without the community engagement facilitated by Mrs. Milligan, Delawarean suffragists surely would have fought significantly longer to sway public opinion towards equality.


"United States Census, 1900," database with images, FamilySearch ( accessed 2 October 2017), household of Joseph R Milligan, Wilmington Hundred, Precincts 55 & 31 Wilmington city Ward 5, New Castle, Delaware, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 22, sheet 6B, family 121, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,240,154.

Accessed via
"The W.C.T.U State Work," Evening Journal (Wilmington, DE), Oct. 9, 1897
"Delegates Named to National Convention and Superintendents Picked," Evening Journal (Wilmington, DE), Oct. 10, 1914
"A Paper by Women," Evening Journal (Wilmington, DE), April 15, 1895
"Thirteenth Annual Convention Held in Newport Yesterday," Evening Journal (Wilmington, DE), April 19, 1900
"The W. C. T. U," News Journal (Wilmington, DE), April 7, 1905
"Fiftieth Jubilee of the Y.W.C.A is Observed," News Journal (Wilmington, DE), Feb. 8, 1916
"A Gala Temperance Day," News Journal (Wilmington, DE), May 18, 1895
"Y.W.C.A's New House," Morning News (Wilmington, DE), April 10, 1895
"Mrs. J.R. Milligan Ill," Every Evening (Wilmington, DE), Oct 29, 1914

Harper, Ida Husted, ed., The History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6 (New York: J.J Little and Ives, 1922), 101. [LINK]

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