Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary R. de Vou, 1868-1949
By Constance J. Cooper, Chief Curator, Delaware Historical Society, retired
Suffragist and Suffrage Historian
Mary R. de Vou of Wilmington, one of Delaware's suffrage stalwarts, joined the cause when it first organized in the mid-1890s, remained faithful through ratification in 1920, and chronicled the state's suffrage history.
The daughter of James Laird de Vou II and Anna Yarnall de Vou, Mary Ruth was born on April 29, 1868. She had one brother. Both the de Vou and Yarnall families had long and distinguished histories in Delaware and Philadelphia. James L. de Vou, a businessman and civic leader, provided a comfortable living for his family.
Mary attended public school in Wilmington, graduating from Wilmington High School in 1887. She then attended Wilmington Friends School for a year before going to Wellesley College. She graduated from Wellesley in 1892 and returned to Wilmington, where she remained for the rest of her life. She did not have a career but focused on civic and club activities. Mary did not marry.
Although the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement began to work for suffrage in Delaware in 1888, activity picked up in the mid-1890s, spurred by the prospect of a state constitutional convention in 1897 and the possibility of including suffrage for women. Mary was an original member of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association (DESA), founded in 1896. She participated in a petition drive that gathered signatures from 1,228 women and 1,592 men. Suffragists presented their petitions to the constitutional convention and were granted a hearing, but the convention did not support votes for women.
After this setback, Mary remained active, emerging quickly as a leader. She was first elected recording secretary of DESA in 1897 and remained on the board in various capacities through 1920, usually as secretary or auditor. She also frequently held office in the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Association (WESA), again primarily as secretary. Mary often served as press chair of both organizations and kept detailed records of suffrage activities.
She participated in at least three marches. She marched in the suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, just before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, that was disrupted by hecklers. In Wilmington, she organized and marched in the college division in the city's first major parade on May 2, 1914. And she took part in a parade in Philadelphia on October 22, 1915.
Mary also appeared before various government bodies and officials. In 1912, she was part of a WESA delegation that asked the Wilmington Charter Commission for woman's suffrage in the new city charter. In January 1914, she was a member of a group of Wilmington suffragists who spoke to a committee of the Delaware House of Representatives about a proposed woman's suffrage amendment to the Delaware constitution. The next January she participated in a meeting with state senator-elect James B. Hickman.
Although she had some contacts with the Congressional Union (CU), Mary had a strong sense of boundaries that kept her firmly in the DESA camp. In the fall of 1913, she and other DESA leaders opposed the CU's plan to have Emmeline Pankhurst speak in Wilmington. Despite their protests, Mrs. Pankhurst did indeed come to the city. In July 1917, as suffragists met to consider how to respond to the White House pickets who had been arrested, Mary strongly articulated the DESA's position of opposition to picketing and refused to sign a letter to Florence Bayard Hilles expressing sympathy with her imprisonment while expressing disapproval of picketing.
When ratification came, Mary was overjoyed. She said, “The stigma of inferiority which had been placed up on the women of the nation is now forever wiped out. . . . The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in Tennessee has brought about one of the most magnificent triumphs for right and justice that has ever been known. I wish that Delaware could have had that honor.”
Mary had a strong interest in history, and her service as secretary and press chair of DESA and WESA made her the logical choice to be appointed by DESA to compile the Delaware entry [LINK] for Ida Husted Harper's History of Woman Suffrage in the United States. She also wrote “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware,” published in H. Clay Reed's Delaware: A History of the First State, which is one of the standard sources on suffrage in Delaware.
After ratification, Mary did not take a leading role in the League of Women Voters, the National Woman's Party, or the political process. However, she was elected an alternate delegate from Delaware to the National Woman's Party annual convention in 1938.
The other main focus of Mary's life was the New Century Club, which she joined in 1893. Here again she showed leadership ability, joining the executive committee in 1894. She served as corresponding secretary from 1928 to 1932 and was the club's press contact to the Wilmington Morning News for sixteen years. In addition, she taught classes, gave talks, and served on committees. She remained a member of the club throughout her life.
Other affiliations included the Natural History Society of Delaware, which Mary joined in 1898 and on whose board she served. An avid botanist, she let her garden grow wild so that she could study the plants that appeared. She was active in the Delaware Association of College Women (now the American Association of University Women). Mary belonged to the First Unitarian Church in Wilmington, where she taught Sunday school and served as secretary of the board of trustees for twenty-six years. And, in 1931 she was on the organizing committee for the Birth Control League of Delaware (now Planned Parenthood of Delaware). Mary had a strong interest in genealogy and local history, and belonged to the Historical Society of Delaware, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and other lineage societies. Mary was a faithful supporter of cultural activities, and her generosity continued after her death through bequests to her church, to Wellesley College for scholarships, to several natural history organizations, and to the state of Delaware for libraries.
Mary died on September 29, 1949. The local newspaper eulogized her as one of Wilmington's leading citizens: “We are going to miss the old spinster whose bright eyes, stiff spine, and proprietary manner proclaimed her for what she was.” Mary is buried in Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.
Basic information on Mary R. de Vou 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.
Mary's comments on ratification appear in “Suffragists of City Jubilant over Word of Final Victory,” Wilmington Morning News, Aug. 19, 1920, p. 2. Her obituary, “Mary R. DeVou Dies in Hospital,” appears in the Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, Sept. 29, 1949, p. 18, and the editorial tribute, “Mary Ruth deVou,” is in the Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, Sept. 30, 1949, p. 8.
Biographical information on Mary and her family is provided in “James Laird de Vou II” in Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marion Björnson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), 3:89-92.
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 Mary de Vou from Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marion Björnson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), 1: between pp. 90-91.