Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary A. Ospina, 1877–1925
By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Suffragist, Translator, Teacher, Delaware Equal Suffrage Association Executive Committee Member, NAWSA Congressional Committee Representative
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, on February 27, 1877, Mary Alexandra Ospina immigrated to the United States in 1904; in 1911 she settled in Wilmington, Delaware, where she lived on and off until her death in 1925. An active suffragist and supporter of girls' and women's education, she was particularly energetic in her role as chair of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association Congressional Committee between 1915 and 1917. In that position, she acted as a liaison between the state and national associations as NAWSA lobbied to gain congressional approval of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the Delaware affiliate sought to amend the state constitution to grant suffrage to women. Her work also involved her in the internecine clash between the Equal Suffrage Association and the Delaware Congressional Union (and its successor the Delaware branch of the National Woman's Party), especially over suffrage-promoting tactics during World War I. She was as a Delaware delegate to NAWSA's national convention in 1916.
Available sources provide limited information on Mary Ospina's background, except to identify her father as Manuel Ospina, and indicate that she had four siblings, a sister and three brothers. One of her brothers, Juan Guillermo Ospina, once was employed as Colombian Consul to Buenos Aires, Argentina. She received her formal schooling at the Colegio Americano par Señoritas in Bogotá. Founded by Presbyterian missionaries as a girls' school in the 1860s and offering instruction in English, by the 1880s the institution had branches for both girls and boys. Although Colombia's 1886 Constitution anointed Catholicism as the country's official religion, the school attracted the children of “personages of significance” (“personalidades importantes del país”) seeking “the best education possible” for their offspring. Mary Ospina appears to have formed a particular bond with a Presbyterian missionary couple, Reverend Thomas H. Candor, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and his wife Margaret Ramsay Candor. Originally from Illinois and Pennsylvania, respectively, the Candors took up their missionary labors separately in Colombia in 1882, and married soon thereafter. Beginning in 1885, the couple ran girls' and boys' schools in Barranquilla, where Thomas Candor also held a position as deputy U.S. Consul. For Ospina's 1923 passport application, Thomas Candor provided a supporting affidavit, attesting that he had known her for forty years. (The Candors had just retired and returned permanently to the United States.)
Mary Ospina's reasons for immigrating to the United States in 1904 remain unclear, although a 1914 newspaper story described her as “a member of the Presbyterian Mission” in Colombia. The 1910 census found her in New York City, working as a translator for an exporting company and boarding in the household of a Columbia University paleontology professor, Amadeus W. Graban, and his Russian-born wife, the writer Mary Antin. By 1911, she had moved to Delaware, living in Wilmington, working as a translator and stenographer, and worshipping at Westminster Presbyterian Church. She marched with the college contingent in Wilmington's first big suffrage parade in May 1914. After offering Spanish lessons to women's club members and at her Wilmington lodgings, she became a teacher of Spanish and French, first at Wilmington High School and then at Girls High School in Reading, Pennsylvania. In 1919, she joined the city's newly formed Business and Professional Women's Club, which concerned itself with “the housing problem” facing white working women and explored expanded educational opportunities for members. During the 1920-21 academic terms, she served as a teaching fellow in the Foreign Languages Department at the Women's College affiliated with the all-male (and all-white) Delaware College in Newark. In 1923, she received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Women's College. She later taught at Roselle High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey, before returning to live in Wilmington. She died of cancer on November 8, 1925 and was buried at the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery in her adopted city.
When Ospina became a naturalized citizen in 1915, she used the occasion to highlight her active engagement with city and state suffrage organizations and to state her brief for women's full citizenship rights. Her naturalization application was remarkable enough that all three local daily papers covered the story. She “is believed to be the only [single] woman who has ever obtained final naturalization papers in this city,” claimed a front-page story in the Evening Journal. Regardless of whether that was the case, Ospina took the opportunity to write a forthright letter, published in Every Evening. As a citizen, “I have not come into the same rights and justice,” she wrote, “that the male applicants instantly secured” when they were naturalized. “I ... await with pleasure, the day when I shall enjoy inalienable rights ... in the liberty of expressing my opinion by the ballot.”
Mary Ospina balanced her commitment to the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association with the need to support herself as a translator, stenographer, and teacher. Hers was a peripatetic life, marked by regular changes of address and location, and intervals of illness. The most intense period of her suffrage work occurred between 1915 and 1917, when she headed up the association's Congressional Committee and served on its Executive Committee. In that capacity, she corresponded with Delaware's Congressmen and candidates for Congressional positions, consistently lobbying them to support a national suffrage amendment and reporting their responses at suffrage rallies, including at the association-sponsored “Federal Amendment Day” in October 1916. “We ask only for justice,” her standard letter read; “will you give it to us?” Along with several other officers in the association, she attended NAWSA's 1916 convention in Atlantic City; in 1917, she was one of two Delaware delegates to a NAWSA Executive Council meeting. At such meetings, she witnessed key discussions regarding appropriate suffrage-winning strategies, a matter that was a source of increasing strife with Delaware's National Woman's Party (NWP) affiliate and its chairman, Florence Bayard Hilles. Once the United States entered the Great War, the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association parted ways with the NWP over the propriety of using such confrontational tactics as picketing the White House.
By summer, 1917, Ospina had resigned her post, taking a leave of absence, during which she visited Colombia and then worked for the Pan American Union in Washington, DC. Returning to Wilmington and to suffrage work in 1918, she once again became an officer in the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, this time one of two auditors. When the association held a “victory lunch” in June 1919, celebrating Congressional passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and gearing up for state ratification, she was one of the speakers.
While managing both her career and her suffrage work, Mary Ospina was absent from Delaware during the effort to win ratification for the Nineteenth Amendment, an effort that lasted from mid-March to early June of 1920. She spent those weeks at her teaching job in Reading, Pennsylvania; after Delaware's failure to ratify, she took a summer study trip to Grenoble, France. Her will, written in August, 1919, reflected optimism about her personal circumstances and an assurance that she had accumulated enough resources to live comfortably. She expected to be able to leave cash legacies for her sister, Alicia, in Bogotá, and a Wilmington dressmaker friend, Laura Jefferis Mulhausen, in whose home she boarded. She fully expected, too, to have a residue large enough to create a trust fund for the educations of a niece and two nephews at a college in the U.S., where they were to pursue B.A. or B.S. degrees. Nor would just any college do. “Under no condition,” she specified, were the three “to attend a college or other educational institution of the Roman Catholic Church or Protestant Episcopal Church.” Only “an Orthodox Evangelical Institution or a non-sectarian institution such as the University of Pennsylvania” would fulfill the terms of the will.
By the fall of 1921, however, she was ill; a series of illnesses and job postings ensued, ending with her death in Wilmington in 1925. When Laura Mulhausen probated Mary Ospina's will, the entire estate amounted to $233 in a bank account, all of which was eaten up by funeral and other expenses.
Information on Mary Ospina's background and schooling, as well as genealogical details on Thomas and Margaret Candor, can be gleaned from census and passport documents available on Ancestry.com. Ospina's 1923 passport application, with Thomas Candor's affidavit, includes a photograph, as does her 1920 passport application. City and school directories available on Ancestry.com and HathiTrust.org as well as coverage in local newspapers (available via newspapers.com) provide details on her career path and her suffrage activism. For her role in the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, see especially the Equal Suffrage Association's Minutebook, 1916-1919, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely Collection, Woman Suffrage Records, Delaware Public Archives, #9200 R09, 002, Folder 1. An obituary in the Wilmington Evening Journal, November 9, 1925, p. 12, includes a few biographical details. Her 1919 will, File #9775 at the New Castle County Register of Wills Office in Wilmington, includes genealogical and personal information and offers insights into her financial status at the time of writing.
These newspaper articles are of particular significance for Mary Ospina's biography: “Interesting Meeting: Miss Ospina of Bogota Delivered an Address before Second Baptist People,” Wilmington Every Evening, April 14, 1914, p. 6; her letter to Every Evening on the occasion of her naturalization: “First Woman Here to Take out Naturalization Papers,” July 6, 1915, p. 8; “Grant Lone Woman Papers as Citizen,” Wilmington Evening Journal, July 6, 1915, p.1; and an example of her letter to various political figures requesting official endorsement of suffrage: “Favors Suffrage Plank in Platform,” Morning News, August 15, 1916, p. 6. Other useful articles on her suffrage career include, “Federal Amendment Day Celebrated,” Every Evening, October 23, 1916, p. 3; and “Equal Suffragists are Not Dismayed,” ibid., July 8, 1916, p. 3.
On Thomas Candor's and Margaret Ramsay Candor's roles in the Presbyterian Mission in Colombia, see W. Reginald Wheeler, Modern Missions on the Spanish Main (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1925), pp.31-33, as well as the current web site for Colegio Americano: http://www.colamericano.edu.co/quienes-somos/
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.