Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mrs. Gertrude W. Nields, 1842-1929
By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Clubwoman, Civic Reformer, Suffragist
After decades of activism on behalf of a number of political, philanthropic, and social service causes in Wilmington, Gertrude Nields became involved in Delaware's suffrage movement through the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, an affiliate of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). There, she joined forces with a number of ardent suffragists—including Mary H. Askew Mather, Emalea Pusey Warner, and Emma Worrell—all of whom had been her associates in the Wilmington New Century Club since its founding in 1889. Although her suffrage labors paled in comparison to other entries in a long list of civic commitments, her social and political prominence in Wilmington and Delaware ensured that the appearance of her name on pro-suffrage platforms would attract notice. Various sources note her “valuable assistance” to the Delaware Association, participation in its 1909 convention, and presence in 1917 as part of a delegation of suffragists lobbying the state legislature in Dover to amend the state constitution to enfranchise women.
Born in 1842 to John Fulton and Mary Ann Pierce (or Peirce) in East Fallowfield Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, Gertrude Fulton grew up in a Quaker farming family. After her 1867 marriage to Benjamin Nields, she received a certificate of removal from the East Fallowfield Monthly Meeting to the Wilmington, Delaware, Monthly Meeting, and in later years occasionally attended the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends. Yet it was a Swedenborgian minister from Wilmington's Church of the New Jerusalem who conducted the marriage ceremony, and for the rest of her life Gertrude Fulton Nields was a member of the city's First Unitarian Church. Each of these religious influences—Quaker, Swedenborgian, Unitarian—left its imprint on her priorities. In particular, she evidenced concern for the education of African American children in Wilmington, and at one time joined a League for the Protection of Colored Woman, a bi-racial group seeking to assist young women who were migrating to Wilmington in search of work. The First Unitarian Church was the only majority-white Protestant congregation in Wilmington that welcomed African American members; suffragist Alice Gertrude Baldwin joined during the 1890s, and the famed writer and suffrage leader Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a member during the 1920s.
Gertrude and Benjamin Nields had grown up with anti-slavery ideals; as a married couple, they shared egalitarian political principles. Benjamin, who was eleven years older than Gertrude, had acquired a reputation for bravery for his actions as a Union Army Colonel during the Civil War. In post-Reconstruction segregated Delaware, he was known for his devotion to the Republican Party, as was Gertrude. She consistently advocated for both Republican Party candidates and for the party's heroic (as she saw it) history. In 1894, for instance, she publicly endorsed to the state legislature any Delaware Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. And in a 1909 speech, she fulminated against the efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to rewrite the history of the Civil War by teaching “the children of the North” that it was “Northern aggression,” not slavery, which caused the war. Together, Gertrude and Benjamin built their lives around their common concerns. They were comfortable lives, made possible by his work, first in his thriving law practice, and after 1885, as a banker (he was a founder and incorporator of the Wilmington Security Trust and Safe Deposit Company). Live-in African American servants eased the burdens of housework and child care. During Benjamin's lifetime, he accumulated a substantial fortune: at his death in 1917, Gertrude received the bulk of it in trust, along with possession of their well-appointed, three-story family home at 803 Broome Street. Upon her death, the remainder went to their five surviving children.
By the time she was in her forties, Gertrude Nields had become a fixture in the world of Wilmington service organizations. Her commitments numbered some undertaken with her husband—including the combined Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children/Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Wilmington Homeopathic Hospital, and the Home for Destitute and Friendless Children—but most were in women's separate organizations, such as Women's National Indian Association local branch. For decades, she devoted time and resources to the Wilmington New Century Club, founded in 1889. As a founder and incorporator of the club, she took on projects that reflected her priorities: education, literacy, civic and electoral reform, history, current events, and social service. She advocated frequently for improvements in Delaware's educational standards, promoted compulsory schooling, and through the Delaware Federation of Women's Clubs, actively lobbied Delaware's governor and legislature to provide funding for a Women's College in Newark. The College—for white women only—opened in 1914.
On occasion, her volunteer labors occurred in concert with Wilmington's middle-class African American women, particularly the esteemed principal of the Howard School, Edwina Kruse, and the suffragist and social worker Blanche Williams Stubbs. In 1909, under the auspices of the New Century Club's Social Service Committee, she joined a group that included Kruse hoping to establish a branch of the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (a precursor of the Urban League) in the city. She was a financial supporter of Blanche Stubbs's Garrett Settlement House and lectured several times at Howard High School, the only four-year high school for African American students in Delaware. Her chosen topics, biographical sketches of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and William McKinley, reflected her political leanings. In 1914, she (but not her husband) became one of a handful of white residents to join the newly formed Wilmington chapter of the NAACP.
Gertrude Fulton Nields's political activism in many arenas made her support for woman suffrage unsurprising. If she did not take a leadership position within the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, she nevertheless was willing to use her social and economic status to promote the cause. She was a beloved figure within white women's club circles and although she never directly challenged Delaware's segregation laws, was a reliable ally to African American reformers. At her death in 1929, the New Century Club honored her by donating a library in her name to the Emalea Pusey Warner Junior High School (now Warner Elementary School) in Wilmington. After a determinedly modest funeral service, she was buried in the Nields family plot at the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.
Genealogical information on the Nields and Fulton 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 and documents available via HathiTrust.org provide extensive detail on Gertrude Nields's personal life, volunteerism, and political leanings. These obituaries are useful: “Mrs. G. W. Nields, Club Woman, Dead,” Wilmington Morning News, September 9, 1929, p. 2; “Mrs. G. W. Nields Buried Tomorrow,” Wilmington Every Evening, September 9, 1929, p. 12; “Many Attend Funeral of Mrs. G. W. Nields,” Morning News, September 11, 1929, p. 1; “Colonel Nields, Veteran Lawyer, Called by Death,” Wilmington Evening Journal, December 4, 1917, pp, 1, 2. For the Nields burial plot, see https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/131430961
Benjamin Nields's will, File #6458, and Gertrude Nields's will, File #13204, can be found at the New Castle County Register of Wills Office, Wilmington, Delaware.
On Benjamin Nields's career, see American Biography: A New Cyclopedia, compiled by William Richard Cutler (New York: n. p., 1917), 6: 276-277.
For Gertrude Nields's long-term service to the Wilmington New Century Club, especially the Current Events and Social Service Committees, consult the New Century Club Papers, Delaware Historical Society, Accession 83.11. For her suffrage activities, see the History of Woman Suffrage, 4: 565 and 6: 87-88. See also the First Unitarian Society of Wilmington Records, Delaware Historical Society, Box 3, Folders #1-2.
These secondary works provide significant context for Gertrude Nields's life and career:
Gail Stanislow, “Domestic Feminism in Wilmington: The New Century Club, 1889-1917,” Delaware History, 22:4 (1987): 158-185; Carol E. Hoffecker, “Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign,” Delaware History, 20:3 (1983): 149-67; 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; Carol E. Hoffecker, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand: A History of Women at the University of Delaware (Newark: University of Delaware, 1994), 21-29; and Annette Woolard-Provine, Integrating Delaware: The Reddings of Wilmington (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003), 43-45.