Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Josephine M. R. White De Lacour, 1849-1929
By Constance J. Cooper, Chief Curator, Delaware Historical Society, retired
Suffragist, Candidate for Public Office, Physician
When she decided in her youth that she wanted to become a physician, Josephine White of Wilmington, Delaware, set off on an independent course. While that path did not necessarily have to lead to actively supporting suffrage and full political rights for women, in her case it did. One of the first women in Delaware to seek elected office, she ran for Wilmington school board in 1895, shortly before the formation of Delaware's first suffrage organizations.
Josephine was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on October 4, 1849, the first of seven children of Alexander and Mary Ann Beyer White. The family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, by the early 1850s. Alexander White, born Ireland in 1819, came to the United States as a young man. In Wilmington, he worked as a moulder at the Lobdell Car Wheel Company. Mary Ann Beyer came from a family that had lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1720s; two of her sons inherited a farm in Lancaster County that had been in the family for many generations.
Josephine attended Wesleyan Female College in Wilmington, graduating with a college degree in 1875. An early degree-granting college for women, Wesleyan ceased to operate in the 1880s. The fact that she graduated in her mid-twenties suggests that her educational journey may not have always easy and may have had some interruptions along the way.
Inspired by the example of a cousin, Dr. Mary Wilson (1839-1898) of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who graduated from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1868 and practiced medicine throughout her life, Josephine determined to become a physician. She entered the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania and graduated with her M.D. degree in 1878. Founded in 1850 in Philadelphia, the school offered a high-quality medical education to thousands of women and is now part of the College of Medicine at Drexel University.
After graduation, Josephine returned to Wilmington and began to practice medicine. As the first female physician in the city and state, her way was not easy at first. She taught at Wesleyan Female College for a few years while she built up her practice. But Josephine persevered. She was admitted to the Delaware State Medical Society in 1880 as its first woman member. In time, Josephine developed a successful practice, serving families for many years and delivering thousands of babies. She became a well-respected and much-loved member of Wilmington's medical profession. Along with many of the city's physicians and surgeons, Josephine helped to found Physicians' and Surgeons' Hospital in 1909 (now Wilmington Hospital, part of Christiana Care). One of the hospital's rooms was furnished and named in her honor. Josephine was also active in the hospital's women's auxiliary. The combination of involvement in both the professional and auxiliary sides of the hospital reflects the ambiguity of a woman doctor's place in the early 1900's.
In June 1895, Josephine, along with Mary Sisson, took the bold step of running for Wilmington's board of education. In Delaware, women who met a taxpaying qualification could vote and stand as candidates in school board elections. This was the first time that women had run for elected office in the city. Josephine conducted an active campaign against the incumbent and earned a respectable number of votes but was defeated on a tally of 152 to 125. Even though more than a thousand women were eligible to vote in the city, only 42 cast ballots.
Josephine married Edward De Lacour (1855-1928), a politically active lawyer from Baltimore, in 1900. Her suffrage activity is under the name Dr. Josephine White De Lacour, or some variation, with her last name spelled in many ways. For much of her life, her widowed sister Jane W. Pennewill and her two children lived with Josephine.
After ratification, Josephine recalled that her initial reason for getting involved in the suffrage movement was that it seemed to be the shortest route to enacting prohibition. Her primary suffrage organization was the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Association (WESA). Her first documented involvement in suffrage comes in March 1910 when she reported on the lives of immigrant women in Wilmington at a WESA meeting. Later that year, she was a member of a WESA committee tasked with obtaining a list of eligible women voters in the city. From then until 1920, she played an active role in the movement in Delaware.
In 1911, Josephine once again ran for election to the Wilmington school board. She was the only woman to run, despite efforts to recruit others. The WESA actively supported her candidacy. A favorable communication from “Wilmingtonian” in the Morning News on June 10, 1911, pointed out that “to be the only woman on the board would not disconcert the doctor, who has for years been used to being thus in a minority at the meetings of medical societies. Her familiarity with the needs of many of the children and her acquaintance with their parents, among whom she has gone in and out for more than thirty years, will make her service to the schools of great value.” However, once again, Josephine was defeated by the incumbent, this time by 94 votes out of a total of 729 votes cast. However, her candidacy and respectable showing led the WESA to realize that recruiting women candidates for school board elections could be a good way to develop support for suffrage.
Josephine participated in at least four major suffrage parades. She marched in the medical section of the parade in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, just before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. Despite the disruptions that some marchers experienced, the Every Evening newspaper quoted her as saying that “I shall always be glad that I was able to see such a brilliant and gorgeous spectacle as that suffrage pageant which was in every respect a tribute to the brains of the women of this country.” She was the marshal for the doctors' section of the Wilmington suffrage parade on May 2, 1914, and also marched in parades in Philadelphia on May 1 and October 22, 1915.
Josephine served as president of WESA from 1914 to 1916. With nearly 200 members, the group maintained an active schedule. In 1915, WESA held 6 public meetings with notable speakers and a tea in honor of the state president's birthday. The next year, there were seven regular meetings, one special meeting, seven executive committee meetings, one mass meeting, two political meetings, and two receptions.
Josephine was one of Delaware's delegates to the NAWSA conventions in 1915 and 1916.
She also met with legislators. In 1914, she was a member of the delegation from Wilmington who attended a hearing by the Delaware House of Representatives committee considering a proposed suffrage amendment to the Delaware constitution. The next year, she was one of a group of fifteen who met with state senator-elect James B. Hickman, part of an effort to meet with all newly elected members of the General Assembly. In March 1917, Josephine and two others met with two of three members of Delaware's congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., in what must have been a difficult session since all were opposed to suffrage.
Josephine was involved in the early organization of the Congressional Union (CU) in Delaware. At a WESA meeting in October 1915, she acknowledged the recent split between the two groups, but asserted that they were working in harmony towards the same goal.
In addition to her medical practice and suffrage, Josephine was active in alumnae activities of the Wesleyan Female College, the International Sunshine Society (of which her sister, Jane W. Pennewill, was state president), and the YWCA. She was also a member of the Natural History Society and the Eastern Star. In religion, she was an Episcopalian and attended St. John's Church.
Josephine died on March 16, 1929, after a long and active life as one of Delaware's early feminists. She is buried in Old Swedes Cemetery in Wilmington.
Basic information on Josephine White De Lacour is available through censuses, city directories, vital records, and genealogies found on Ancestry.com and familysearch.org.
Digitized newspapers from chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, Historic American Newspapers and newspapers.com provide helpful details on her life and career.
For information on Josephine's run for Wilmington school board in 1895, see “School Board Election,” Delaware Gazette and State Journal, June 13, 1895, p. 1. Information on her candidacy in 1911 can be found in “Today's School Election—Dr. De Lacour a Candidate” and the letter from “Wilmingtonian,” both in the Wilmington Morning News, June 10, 1911, p. 13. Josephine's quotation on the 1913 parade is in “Delaware Women in Suffrage Parade,” Wilmington News Journal (Every Evening), March 6, 1913, p. 2. “Dr. White de Lacour Has Golden Jubilee,” Wilmington News Journal (Every Evening), May 14, 1928, p. 8, provides an appreciation of her medical career. Her obituary, “Dr. De Lacour Passes Away” appears in the Wilmington Evening Journal, March 18, 1929, p. 7, and an editorial appreciation, “Dr. de Lacour” appears in the same paper on p. 6.
Information on Dr. Mary Wilson comes from Mary Ellen Smith Meisner, “Women in Medicine in Lancaster County,” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society 94, no. 4 (Dec. 1992): 98-104.
Two important primary sources on suffrage in Delaware are Folders 3 and 4 in Emalea P. Warner Papers, Box 97A, and Delaware Equal Suffrage Association Minutes, 1916-1919, (photocopy of original in papers of Mabel L. Ridgely at the Delaware Public Archives), both in collections of the Delaware Historical Society, Wilmington, Delaware.
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), 1: 349-70.
Photo of Dr. Josephine White De Lacour, courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society