Biographical Sketch of Margaret White Houston

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Margaret White Houston, 1864-1937

By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

Suffrage and League of Women Voters Leader, Women's Club Founder, Temperance Advocate

Margaret Burton White Houston, founding vice-president of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association and a frequent delegate to NAWSA conferences, was an important participant in the effort to secure Delaware's ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. An experienced organizer and public speaker, and a well-connected resident of the state's heavily rural and most Democratic county—Sussex County—she used those experiences and contacts to help the Ratification Committee reach the largest coterie of anti-suffrage state legislators. Houston's connections to key sources of power in the county derived from her own family background and her service in the Equal Suffrage Association, as well as a founder and the first president of the Georgetown, Delaware, New Century Club (1898- ), president of the Delaware State Federation of Women's Clubs (1903-1905), and a figure in Presbyterian church work. They also arose from her marriage to a prominent local lawyer, who perhaps most significantly, was the owner and publisher of a Georgetown-based newspaper, the Sussex Republican (later renamed The Sussex Countian). Robert Griffith Houston, whom she married in 1888, later served in the U.S. Congress as Delaware's lone member of the House of Representatives (1925-1933). These elements of Margaret Houston's biography resemble those of other suffragists whose experience in women's separate organizations, commitment to civic improvement, and ties to local and state power brokers, drew them to the suffrage cause. The particular details of her biography tell the story of a self-assured woman willing to challenge her elected representatives on causes about which she was passionate.

Margaret Burton White was born near Lewes, Sussex County, Delaware, in 1864, the third daughter and fourth child (of eight) born to Henry and Mary Ann Burton White, prosperous farmers who lived and farmed near their Burton and White relations. Maggie White attended school in Sussex County (her older sister Lydia was a teacher) and then moved some sixty miles northwards to attend the Normal Department of the Academy of Newark, Delaware, training to become a teacher herself. She graduated in 1887. In December, 1888, she married Robert Griffith Houston, a native of Milton, Sussex County, Delaware, who was reading law in the Dover, Delaware, office of his uncle, John Wallace Houston. The Houstons were Republicans and well connected to Delaware's political power centers. (As a Whig, John W. Houston had served as Delaware's at-large member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1845 to 1851.) The couple made their home in Georgetown, Sussex County, Delaware. During her marriage, Margaret White Houston bore three children. John Wallace Houston, 1889-1958, became a farmer. Mary Houston Robinson (1892-1984) was a teacher and administrator of schools in Georgetown and Newark before becoming news editor of her father's newspaper. Upon his death in 1946, she took over as publisher and editor, energetically turning a "four-page country newspaper with 33 subscriptions" into a "22-page weekly with a circulation of 5,000." Elizabeth Houston (1895-1991), had a long career as a teacher, first at the Finch School in New York, and later at the Ogontz School for Young Ladies near Philadelphia. At her death Elizabeth was buried with her parents and her brother in the family grave at Lewes Presbyterian Church.

Margaret Houston began her suffrage leadership in 1896 when, at an organizing meeting in Wilmington, she became vice-president of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, a position she held for at least eight years. A NAWSA affiliate, the Equal Suffrage Association came into being at a crucial moment: suffragists hoped that a convention planned for 1897 to write a new state constitution would eliminate the word "male" from the stated qualifications for voting. At the constitutional convention, along with co-workers Emalea Pusey Warner and Emma Worrell, Margaret Houston addressed the delegates, presenting signed petitions backing the proposal. The new constitution, however, retained the requirement that voters be male. Between 1898 and 1902, she served as a delegate to NAWSA annual conferences; in 1898, she stood in for the Association's president, Martha Churchman Cranston, delivering the state's address to the assembled group. During the 1890s, too, she actively supported the temperance work of the state Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and contributed occasional pieces to its journal the Union Signal. When, in 1898, white club women in the state came together to create the State Federation of Women's Clubs, Margaret Houston represented the newly formed Georgetown New Century Club, of which she was president, at the state-wide organizational meeting. Individual clubs, she believed, represented "the home," and "the uplifting of women"; collective club work, "means the uplifting of the home." Her views put her in line with the position of the national WCTU, which endorsed suffrage as a route to "home protection." In 1905, she addressed the pro-suffrage Delaware State Grange, of which Martha Cranston was an officer, on the topic, "The Women of the Twentieth Century." For its part, the State Federation of Women's Clubs withheld any endorsement of suffrage, believing the issue to be divisive among its membership.

Margaret Houston's activities—suffrage and temperance advocacy, combined with women's club leadership at both the local and state level—create a biographical portrait familiar to historians of the mainstream suffrage movement. At meetings in Georgetown, Wilmington, Dover, and other locations, Margaret Houston worked in concert with most of Delaware's well-known NAWSA suffragists, including Martha Cranston, Emalea Pusey Warner, Emma Worrell, and Mabel Lloyd Ridgely. If the women compared their meeting schedules, they would have found considerable overlap among their various commitments. Like her co-workers, Margaret Houston was a Protestant, possessed an education superior to that of most women of her time, enjoyed domestic help while her children were small (until around 1920, the Houstons usually had two or three live-in African American servants), and could rely on the material and moral support of her husband. Like them, too, she possessed a deep commitment to improving educational opportunities for women, particularly through supporting the creation of a four-year, degree-granting college for (white) women in Newark, to be affiliated with the existing all-male Delaware College.

During the epic battle to secure ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the national limelight fell on Delaware in spring, 1920. Thirty-three states had ratified; only three more were needed. When West Virginia and Washington State ratified in March, suffrage leaders pinned their hopes upon Delaware, which had a robust group of National Woman's Party (NWP) activists, led by Florence Bayard Hilles and Mabel Vernon. NAWSA had a long history of grassroots organizing among white suffragists in Delaware, dating back to the 1896 formation of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association. (African American suffragists, led by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, organized separately.) Women like Margaret White Houston, who had been there from the start, could draw upon over twenty years of experience, including failed efforts to secure state suffrage in 1897, 1915, and 1917. Houston was particularly valuable to the effort because of her ties to political and social elites in Sussex County and her access to lawmakers in Dover. A 1920 letter of hers, addressed to Mabel Ridgely and published in a Wilmington newspaper, proved useful to the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association's argument that there was "deep interest in suffrage in lower Delaware towns."

In the end, Delaware's legislature refused to ratify the amendment. Opposition was particularly strong in Margaret Houston's home county and among Democratic legislators from all three of the state's counties. Despite the efforts of the pro-suffrage governor, a Republican, and Republican lawmakers, suffrage lobbyists could not overcome widely disseminated arguments that woman suffrage would destroy the state's voting balance by enfranchising African American women, and that, as voters, women would support measures, such as school reform, that would lead to higher taxes.

Once the Amendment became part of the Constitution in August, 1920, Margaret Houston joined her NAWSA co-workers in a new, successor organization, the League of Women Voters, becoming the Delaware League's third vice-president. Although non-partisan, the League was active in supporting the new state school code, enacted in 1921, the framework for which Robert G. Houston helped construct. While her husband served in Congress from 1925 to 1933, she spent time in Washington, D.C., fulfilling the routine duties of Congressional spouses (having "at home" afternoons, hosting teas and lectures) but remained involved in Sussex County club and church work. Margaret White Houston died of a heart attack in 1937 at her home in Georgetown, Delaware. Her husband survived her by nine years. Of the obituaries composed upon her death, neither those in Wilmington newspapers nor the notice outlined in black on the first page of her husband's and daughter's newspaper, The Sussex Countian, mentioned her years of activism on behalf of woman suffrage.

Sources:

Biographical details for Margaret Burton White Houston and the White and Houston families can be traced through decennial censuses, vital records, and city directories found on Ancestry.com and familysearch.com. Local newspapers digitized on chroniclingamerica.org and newspapers.com offer helpful details regarding her activities in women's club work, temperance, and suffrage. Her comments connecting suffrage with "the home" appeared in "Club Women in Session," Delaware Gazette and State Journal, June 1, 1899, p. 1. For her teacher training, see "Newark Academy Commencement," Wilmington Morning News, June 18, 1887, p. 1. On her early suffrage career, see Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association... (Philadelphia, 1898), pp. 59, 69. On her WCTU affiliation, see the Wilmington Daily Republican, September 29, 1899, 2. A note on her address to the Grange (but not the text of the address) appeared in Proceedings of the Thirty-First Annual Session of the Delaware State Grange, Patrons of Husbandry, held in Georgetown, Delaware ... (Dover, 1905), p. 39. Her suffrage letter, signed "Margaret W. Houston" was printed in the Wilmington Evening Journal, April 7, 1920, p. 2. Obituaries appeared in the Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, September 22, 1937, p. 10; Wilmington Morning News, September 22, 1937, p. 6; and The Sussex Countian, September 23, 1937, p. 1.

For general context, see History of Woman Suffrage, VI: 93 [LINK]; and Mary R. de Vou, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware," in Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marion Björnson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), I: 349-70.

The following family members' obituaries provided useful information: "R. G. Houston Dies; Served in Congress," Journal-Every Evening, January 29, 1946, pp. 1, 16; "Robert G. Houston," New York Times, January 30, 1946, p. 22; and "Mary [Houston] Robinson, Sussex editor," Wilmington News-Journal, June 9, 1984, p. A7.

The best secondary source on woman suffrage in Delaware is Carol E. Hoffecker, "Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign," Delaware History, 20 (Spring-Summer 1983): 149-67.

Photo: Photographs of Margaret White Houston ("Mrs. Robt. G. Houston"), her daughter Elizabeth, and seven other suffragists from Sussex County accompanied an article, "Some Active Suffragists of Sussex," in the Delmarvia [Sunday] Star, April 18, 1920, p. 33.

back to top