Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Marjorie Willoughby Josephs Speakman, 1889-1978
By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Suffragist, Businesswoman, Historic Preservationist
When Marjorie Willoughby Speakman composed a résumé in 1968, she described herself accurately as a "retired executive," but represented her early career inaccurately. "From 1908 until 1934," she wrote, she had been simply a "wife and mother." Missing from the sketch, which included her post-1934 years as owner and manager of "prestige shop[s]" for women's and children's apparel, her membership in and service on the boards of numerous voluntary associations, and her many overseas trips, was her activism in Delaware's affiliate of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and its successor, the League of Women Voters (LWV). Yet beginning in January, 1920, as a member of the state organization's Legislative Committee, Marjorie Speakman completed significant groundwork in the Delaware campaign to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. To her and her co-workers fell the nitty-gritty task of interviewing legislators and securing their favorable votes. Despite the determined efforts of the state's suffragists, however, the Delaware legislature did not ratify the amendment. After ratification, Speakman continued her political activism through the League of Women Voters, women's clubs, and the Republican Party.
Marjorie Willoughby Josephs was born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1889, the third of five children, four of whom survived to adulthood, of Howard Josephs and Lizzie Marion Willoughby. Her father spent many years at City Hall as a real estate assessor, a political appointment that he secured through his own father's Democratic Party affiliation. (From 1862 to 1874, Samuel Josephs had served in the Pennsylvania House as member from Philadelphia.) Later, Howard Josephs worked as a manufacturer's agent; in 1910, he told the census taker that he had his "own income." Marjorie's mother was from Seaford, Delaware, a Sussex County town to which she returned with her children to live around 1904, separating from Howard Josephs, likely because he had been the defendant in an 1899 Philadelphia "alienation of affections" lawsuit. (In an odd twist of fate, Marjorie later testified on behalf of her sister Betty, when Betty's first husband sued her second husband on the same grounds.) Although Marjorie's parents never divorced and kept up a façade of marital togetherness, they remained apart until he died in 1925. It appears that the Josephs children resented or were embarrassed by their father's behavior—at his death he had been living with another woman for over fifteen years—for Marjorie's brothers changed their surname to Willoughby. Marjorie also dropped references to her birth name, afterwards styling herself Marjorie Willoughby Speakman.
By 1905, Marjorie was living with her mother and siblings in Smyrna, Kent County, Delaware, and attending school in Philadelphia. In Smyrna, Marjorie met and in 1908 married Cummins E. Speakman, who, along with his widowed mother, Caroline Cloak Peterson Speakman, ran a canning business, primarily processing the tomatoes grown on the family's land. Caroline Speakman held several patents on the canning process. Upon her marriage, Marjorie moved into the Speakman family's historic home, Belmont Hall, built in 1773, to which the elder Mrs. Speakman, who had inherited the property in 1867, had devoted many hours of loving restoration. (Caroline Speakman's application for Cummins Speakman to join the Sons of the American Revolution on basis of her own ancestry reflected her genealogical interests—and familial pride.) Marjorie Speakman bore three children during her marriage: Cummins E. Speakman, Jr., (1912-1990); Marion Speakman Holder Matthews (1913-2004); and Walter Willoughby Speakman (1919-2011).
With two school-age children and a toddler at home, as well as an ill mother-in-law, but with household help along with the assistance of her own mother, Marjorie Speakman agreed in January, 1920, to serve on the Legislative Committee of NAWSA's Delaware affiliate, the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association. It seems likely that the Speakman name and associations, as well as Belmont Hall's prominence and location, rendered her appointment important strategically for suffrage leaders, who were looking ahead to the special legislative session that would convene in March. Indeed, in January, the Equal Suffrage Association moved its headquarters to Dover and named another well-connected local woman, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, as president. As a member of the Legislative Committee, Marjorie Speakman would have made direct contact with members of both the state's House and its Senate, seeking their support and shoring up their commitments as suffragists geared up for the ratification vote. Her colleagues included Winifred Morris and Anna Beauchamp Reynolds. When the special legislative session convened, beginning in late March and lasting until early June, the Legislative Committee tracked the ins and outs of procedural wrangling. Throughout, the group maintained its faith that Delaware would provide the final state vote for ratification. It did not. With the cause lost in Delaware, national suffrage leaders moved on to Tennessee, where a positive vote squeaked through the legislature on August 18, 1920.
Once the amendment was ratified, Marjorie Speakman's public activism increased. She became a charter member of Delaware chapter of the newly formed League of Women Voters (LWV), and served on its legislative committee, using her skills to support Congressional passage of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infant Protection Act in 1921. The act provided federal matching funds to states, such as Delaware, that offered grants for pre-natal and infant medical care, in an effort to reduce the state's high maternal and infant death rates. She spoke on the topic of "Women in Industry" at the LWV's 1921 state conference, was active in Wilmington's New Century Club, the largest of the state's thriving women's club network, and helped write club reports to the U.S. Children's Bureau. Unlike many of her Delaware suffrage colleagues, she opposed prohibition; in the early 1930s, she served on the executive committee and as Kent County chair of a Delaware women's organization seeking to repeal the Prohibition (18th) Amendment. For her work with the Delaware Republican Party, she was elected to the National Council of Republican Women. During the 1950s, her energetic support of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential campaign led to her appointment as the only woman member of the National Council of Consultants to the Small Business Administration.
Historic preservation was another of her long-term commitments. After a devastating fire at Belmont Hall in 1922, Marjorie and Cummins Speakman, along with their three children, moved to Wilmington, where Cummins worked as an insurance salesman. (Caroline Speakman had died in October, 1920.) Over time, the couple supervised the restoration of Belmont Hall to a more historically accurate Georgian style, removing some of the Victorian additions that Caroline Speakman had introduced. Eventually, the Speakmans returned to live at Belmont Hall. Marjorie later expanded her interest in Delaware's historic sites, chairing the steering committee working to restore Loockerman Hall on the campus of the historically black Delaware State College (now Delaware State University) in Dover, joining Mabel Ridgely on a committee to create a state museum at the Old Presbyterian Church in Dover, and becoming a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In 1934, Marjorie Speakman began a business career in partnership with several local investors, founding Bird-Speakman in Wilmington, a shop offering high-end women's clothing to well-off customers. As secretary-treasurer and manager of Bird-Speakman, she became well known as the "executive" of her 1968 description. In addition to scouting couture items on trips to Paris, she had a column for a time in the local Sunday newspaper and did regular broadcasts on a Wilmington radio station. Her husband died in 1951. Around 1952, she opened Marjorie Speakman, Inc., a children's clothing store in suburban Greenville, Delaware, where, in segregated Delaware, Lizette Davis became one of the few African American Wilmingtonians to build a retail career in a white-owned business. Marjorie Speakman retired from Bird-Speakman in 1966. Upon her death in 1978, at the age of eighty-eight, Speakman was eulogized as a preservationist, "suffragette," educational leader, businesswoman, intrepid traveller, and Republican Party activist. A memorial stone at Belmont Hall includes her name along with those of family members who had lived at the house.
Basic information on the Josephs, Willoughby, and Speakman families is available through censuses, city directories, vital records, and genealogies found on Ancestry.com and familysearch.org.
Digitized newspapers from chroniclingamerica.org, America's Historical Newspapers, and newspapers.com provide helpful details on her life and career, and on family members' lives.
Two obituaries for Marjorie Speakman covered her career and commitments. Both contained photographs: "Marjorie Speakman, 88, Preservationist, is Dead," Wilmington Morning News, June 5, 1978, p. 31; "Services Held for Mrs. M. Speakman," Smyrna [Delaware] Times, June 8, 1978, p. 1. See also Grace C. Root, Women and Repeal (NY: Harper, 1934), 182.
At the Delaware Historical Society, the Marjorie Speakman papers pertain largely to her work at the Bird-Speakman shop and include newspaper clippings and photographs, as well as some excerpts from her letters. The Historical Society's collection on the Bird-Speakman shop itself contains photos of murals designed and painted by her brother Walter Willoughby. Photographs from the Bird-Speakman materials are posted on line; there, one can see some items of clothing and millinery from the store.
Thanks are due to Dr. Barry Corke for sharing a copy of his thesis for a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree at the University of Delaware, "Marjorie Speakman and Bird-Speakman, Inc. Bring High Fashion to Delaware, 1930s to 1960s."
For a history of Belmont Hall, along with a copy of the résumé that Marjorie Speakman composed in 1968, see: http://www.belmonthall.org/
For historical context on the Delaware suffrage struggle, see Carol E. Hoffecker, "Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign," Delaware History, 20 (Spring-Summer 1983): 149-67; 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: 349-370.
Photo of Marjorie and Cummins Speakman from Belmont Hall web site: http://www.belmonthall.org/photo-gallery/old-family-photos/ ©Belmont Hall 2017