Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Seward Phillips (Mrs. John R.) Eskridge, 1883-1967
By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Clubwoman, Suffragist, Democratic Party Activist
Mary Eskridge filled two visible roles during the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association's campaign to convince the state legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. In September, 1919, as the association's leadership was gearing up for the coming ratification effort, Emalea Pusey Warner nominated her to serve as co-chair of the ratification committee for her home county, Sussex, the most rural and most Democratic of Delaware's three counties. She agreed. Not long after, in November, she took up the treasurer's post for the Equal Suffrage Association.
Because she was both a well-known clubwoman, had been chair of the wartime Victory Loan Committee for six Sussex County towns, and was an adherent of the Democratic Party, Mary Eskridge's appointments to the ratification committee and the treasurer's post made her natural “fit” for the Equal Suffrage Association's needs. It also dovetailed with the group's ratification strategy, which was aimed at driving home to Delaware's legislators the argument that woman suffrage enjoyed wide support across the state and across both political parties. New stationery printed in November 1919 included an impressive list of suffragists from all three counties, each with her home town listed. Any legislator scanning letters from the association would quickly find the names of prominent women from his district. Legislators were unlikely to ignore such women when they showed up to lobby for ratification.
Mary Eskridge's suffrage activism spanned 1919 and 1920, and especially the crucial months between March and June, 1920, when the Equal Suffrage Association dedicated every available resource to winning ratification during a special legislative session. In the end, the Delaware legislature adjourned in June without ratifying the amendment. Once the amendment became part of the Constitution, she accepted an appointment as an associate member of the Delaware Democratic Party's State Committee. In addition, she joined the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association's successor, the League of Women Voters, continuing in the Treasurer's position while also helping to organize the League's “citizenship school” in her home town of Seaford. During the 1920 election campaign, she and another Sussex County suffragist, a Republican, marshaled their forces to help defeat two legislators who had refused to support woman suffrage. According to a correspondent for The Woman Citizen, the two women “made so active a campaign” against the men that their re-election efforts “were doomed before they ever reached the primaries.”
In the decades after ratification, Mary Eskridge's profile within Delaware Democratic Party circles grew. She became a member of the Democratic State Committee and in 1928 was the state's national committeewoman and an advocate for Alfred E. Smith's election to the presidency. In 1933, she made a bid to be appointed Seaford's postmaster, and did so again in 1943, both times without success. (Until at least 1967, no woman held the town postmaster's job.) Once the party had won the White House in the 1932 election and once New Deal programs arrived in Delaware, she took full-time paid positions, first as the National Youth Administration (white) supervisor for Kent and Sussex Counties, and then as a social worker overseeing the Works Progress Administration's sewing unit for Sussex County. Throughout those years, she remained active in Seaford's Acorn Club and volunteered for a time with the town's Parent-Teacher Association.
Born Mary Seward Phillips in Seaford, DE on August 28, 1883, Mary Eskridge grew up in a blended family. Her father, John Wesley Phillips, a meat packer and merchant, was almost fifty and the father of four children when Mary was born. His second wife, Mary Anne Hudson Phillips, was a widow, aged thirty-three. John Phillips was active in Democratic Party politics, had served in the Delaware legislature in the mid-1870s, and at the time of his death in 1886 (when Mary was three), was Seaford's postmaster (a political appointment). Mary completed her high school education in Seaford and then, when she was nineteen years old, married John Roe Eskridge, a Sussex County native who had gone to sea at the age of twelve. John Eskridge eventually came to purchase and command his own 3-masted schooners, one of which he named for her. By the time of her marriage, Mary Eskridge's step-siblings had moved out of Seaford, two of them to nearby Delmar, Delaware. Her mother, however, resided with the Eskridges until her death in 1924. During her marriage, Mary Eskridge bore three children: Doris, in 1904; Mary Louise, in 1907; and Anne, in 1924, after her mother's suffrage years.
As the daughter and then the wife of men involved in Sussex County Democratic politics, Mary Eskridge undoubtedly found her own political leanings and interests influenced by them. Still, her initial foray into public service was officially non-political and non-partisan; in 1913, she became president of Seaford's women's club, the Acorn Club, which was building the town's public library from scratch. But as many a clubwoman of her day discovered, even an attempt to build a town library required a knowledge of local politics and a willingness to step into the political arena. Rather quickly, Mary Eskridge moved into the world of state politics, as refracted through the priorities of the Delaware State Federation of Women's Clubs, including state funding for a (white) women's college in Newark, and local support for libraries and public health measures. In 1914, she represented the Acorn Club at the State Federation's annual meeting. As a delegate, she would have met leading white clubwomen from around the state, including Emalea Pusey Warner, who, like many of the attendees, was active in the suffrage cause. (The State Federation avoided taking any position on suffrage, fearing it would be divisive in a membership that included prominent anti-suffragists such as Emily P. Bissell.)
By 1918, with Emalea Warner as Federation president, Mary Eskridge became secretary of the state organization. During the Great War, Mary Eskridge headed up the Victory Loan Committee for six Sussex County towns, raising $85,000 for the cause by April, 1919. By the autumn of that year, with the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association planning to move its headquarters to the state's capital, Dover, in order to gear up for the effort to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, Mary Eskridge's visible public profile made her appointment as co-chair of the Sussex County ratification committee and Treasurer of the association seem logical (Emalea Warner entered her name into nomination). Not only was she now a well-known Sussex County clubwoman and suffragist, but her husband, a Democrat, planned to run for mayor of Seaford (he won the March, 1920 election). It helped, too, that the Equal Suffrage Association's determinedly non-partisan stance on electoral questions—contrasted with the Delaware NWP's insistence on “holding the party in power responsible” on suffrage—meant that its leadership sought out women from both party affiliations and from across the state to serve on ratification and other committees.
Mary Eskridge's post-ratification life reflected a mix of political involvements and personal changes. During the 1920 general election, she spoke for Democratic women's positions on issues, helped defeat two anti-suffrage legislators, joined the League of Women Voters, and continued her club work. Her husband's position as Seaford's mayor had its demands on her, too. In 1921, a local newspaper reported that she had suffered a “nervous breakdown” and spent a month in a New York sanitarium. In 1924, while her two daughters were completing their schooling (Louise attended Delaware Women's College for two years) and her mother was suffering a terminal illness, she gave birth to a third daughter, Anne. Her Democratic Party commitment led to paid work during the 1930s and early 1940s, and to her hopes of winning the Sussex postmaster's position (she took the civil service exam in 1943). After “a long illness,” John Eskridge died later that year, described by a local paper as a boy-sailor and “one of Sussex County's leading agriculturalists.” Her daughter Anne remained a Seaford resident after her marriage to Howard Marvil in 1947; Doris and Louise moved away after their marriages. It was on a 1967 visit to Doris (now Doris E. Talley) in San Antonio, Texas, that Mary Phillips Eskridge died of a heart attack. Although her birth family had been Methodists, the venue for her funeral service—St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Seaford—indicates that she had changed denominations at some point. She was buried with her husband at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Seaford.
Genealogical information on the Phillips and Eskridge families can gleaned from the vital records, decennial censuses, and city directories found on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. Local newspapers digitized via ChroniclingAmerica.org and newspapers.com provide useful detail on Mary Eskridge's personal life and political career. In particular, see these obituaries: “Former Mayor of Seaford Dies,” Wilmington Journal-Every Evening September 25, 1943, p. 16; and “Mrs. John R. Eskridge,” Wilmington Evening Journal, February 3, 1967 p. 8.
A report on her effort to secure the postmaster position appeared in the Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, March 29, 1943, p. 5. For detail on her post-suffrage political work, see especially, Wilmington Evening Journal, September 14, 1920, p. 12; and Woman Citizen, 5:25 (November 20, 1920): 682, 689.
For details on her role in the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, see the Minutes of the Association's Executive Committee, 1916-1919, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely Collection, Women Suffrage Records, Delaware Public Archives, #9200 R09, 002, folder 1.
For Delaware's suffrage history, see 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; and Carol E. Hoffecker, “Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign,” Delaware History, 20:3 (Spring-Summer, 1983): 149-67.