Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Jane White Pennewill, 1866-1929
By Constance J. Cooper, Chief Curator, Delaware Historical Society, retired
Suffragist, Businesswoman, Advocate for Citizenship
Suffrage led Jane White Pennewill of Wilmington, Delaware, to a brief but contentious public relationship with John E. “Bull” McNabb, a Democrat who represented the city in the Delaware House of Representatives. During the Delaware General Assembly's debate over ratification of the federal amendment in spring 1920, McNabb, a vocal opponent of suffrage, claimed that fewer than twenty-five people in his district supported votes for women. Upon hearing this, Jane and Mrs. F.E. Bach got to work. Two days later they handed McNabb a petition with more than five hundred signatures from his district in favor of suffrage. Despite this, McNabb did not change his stand and Delaware did not ratify. When McNabb ran for election to the Delaware Senate that fall, Jane led a committee of women who worked successfully for his defeat, targeting women voters in his district. Shortly after the election, Jane and McNabb had a verbal altercation on the streets of downtown Wilmington that was reported in the newspapers.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, in March 1866, Jane White was the younger sister of suffragist Josephine White De Lacour. She was one of seven children of Alexander and Mary Ann Beyer White. Alexander White, born Ireland in 1819, came to the United States as a young man and worked as a moulder at the Lobdell Car Wheel Company in Wilmington. 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. Like her sister, Jane attended Wesleyan Female College in Wilmington, but the extent of her education is unknown because the school closed in the 1880s and its records are incomplete.
Jane married John C. Pennewill, Jr., of Dover on September 30, 1886. The son of John C. and Virginia McDaniel Pennewill, John worked as a brakeman on the Delaware Railroad. His father was a well-known politician in Kent County who held several elected and appointed offices. The young couple lived at the White family home in Wilmington and did not set up their own household. Two children were born to the marriage: John C., Jr., in 1887 and Josephine W. in 1896. Unfortunately, John C. Pennewill died suddenly of typhoid in August 1897, leaving Jane a widow with two young children.
After her husband's death, Jane and her children continued to live in the family home with her sister Josephine, now the head of the household since both of their parents had died. Mary Ann White's will provided generously for her daughter. She did not remarry.
Jane also supported herself and her children through her business as a store purchasing agent, a sort of personal shopper. In 1899, she advertised in the newspapers that she went to Philadelphia daily to shop, and would do errands there free of charge. By 1926, she was one of only two authorized agents for Lippincott's department store in Wilmington. When Jane died in 1929, her probate records included a list of approximately 75 customers, all women, for whom she made purchases in various stores, primarily in Wilmington.
Jane's earliest known community involvements were in the social service area. She became involved in the fight against tuberculosis in 1906, attending the very first meeting of the Delaware Anti-Tuberculosis Society (now the Delaware Chapter of the American Lung Association) and remaining active in it throughout her life. She was also heavily involved in the International Sunshine Society, serving as state president from 1906 to 1909. However, she resigned from that office and all other involvements in 1909 for health reasons and remained out of the public sphere for about ten years. She was an Episcopalian and attended St. Andrew's Church.
In 1918, Jane emerged as a publicly active suffragist when she was elected corresponding secretary of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association (DESA). But as the sister of Josephine White De Lacour, she had probably been involved and aware for several years before that. Jane also attended the NAWSA convention in 1919, served as secretary of the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Association in 1919, attended the funeral of Dr. Anna Howard Shaw in 1919, and was a member of Delaware's Ratification Committee. In 1920 she had her encounters with John “Bull” McNabb over ratification.
Once women's suffrage was the law of the land, Jane became an advocate for citizenship, urging women to register, become informed on candidates and issues, vote, and participate fully in the political process. She did this through three organizations. She continued to serve as corresponding secretary of DESA as it transitioned into the League of Women Voters (LWV). She was also active in the Wilmington LWV. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was another major focus of her civic activity. Jane served as president of the Wilmington Federation of the WCTU between 1923 and 1927 and as state chair of Christian Citizenship for a number of years during the 1920s. Finally, she was a member of the Women's Joint Legislative Committee in the 1920s. The Joint Legislative Committee, formed in 1915, was composed of representatives of women's organizations throughout the state who studied legislation and developed positions on proposed bills. Although it was involved in legislation, the committee was not a suffrage-related organization—noted anti-suffragist Emily P. Bissell was the group's first president.
Jane White Pennewill, also known as Mrs. John C. Pennewill, should not be confused with Mrs. James (Alice) Pennewill of Dover, Delaware, who was an active anti-suffragist.
Jane died on April 22, 1929, just a little over a month after her sister Josephine White De Lacour. Her obituaries mention many involvements, but completely omit any mention of her work for woman's suffrage. She is buried in Old Swedes Cemetery in Wilmington.
Basic information on Jane White Pennewill 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.
Information on the 1920 petition drive can be found in “State Senate for Suffrage” in the Wilmington Evening Journal, May 5, 1920, p. 7. Jane's campaign against John McNabb and her post-election confrontation with him are documented in “Drive Started on J.E. M'Nabb,” Wilimington Evening Journal, Oct. 28, 1920, p. 1, and “Mrs. Jane Pennewill Has Verbal Tilt With McNabb,” Wilmington Morning News, Nov. 3, 1920, p. 10. Her obituary, “Death is Sudden to Club Woman,” is in the Wilmington Morning News, April 23, 1929.
Two important primary sources on suffrage in Delaware are Folders 3 and 4 in the Emalea Pusey
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.