Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Leah Burton (Paynter), 1878-1968
Suffragist, Historic Preservationist
By Julia Rizzo and Laura Stankewicz, Padua Academy and faculty sponsor, Dr. Colleen Hall, Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware
Additional research and editing by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
In July, 1919, when the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association's recently elected president, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, asked Leah Burton to chair the association's Ratification and then its Legislative Committee, Burton was well prepared for the challenges she faced. A native of Lewes, Sussex County, Burton had been active in Delaware's suffrage organizations since at least 1915; in addition, she had been an energetic organizer of Liberty Loan fund-raising for the First World War, where her mobilizing skills were clearly evident. When Ridgely, state chair of the Liberty Loan program, requested Burton's assistance, she was undoubtedly acquainted with her co-worker's talents, as well as her connections to Lewes's elite residents. Upon assuming her new assignment, Leah Burton quickly took charge of the work, joining the other officers of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association in lobbying the pro-suffrage governor, John G. Townsend, Jr., to call a special session of the legislature to consider ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment. (Delaware's legislature convened only in odd-numbered years; Congress had sent the amendment to the governor after the regular legislative session.) Once the special session convened in March, 1920, Leah Burton was in the thick of the lobbying effort. When the legislature adjourned without ratifying, she assured a local reporter that Delaware suffragists had "fought a good, clean fight" and were "by no means dispirited." We will, she promised, "carry on."
Born in Lewes on April 3, 1878, Leah Burton was the daughter of a local physician, Hiram Rodney Burton, and his wife Margaret Rawlins Burton. The 1880 census found the family living on her grandmother Burton's farm in Sussex County, but she spent some of her childhood in the historic Burton house in Lewes. She attended Miss Hebb's "select school" in Wilmington, receiving a high school education, then returned to live in Lewes around the time of her mother's death in 1897. Thereafter, she lived with her widowed father and elderly aunt, likely serving as her father's hostess and assistant. When Hiram Burton was elected to Delaware's at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1904 and re-elected in 1906, Leah often accompanied him to Washington, D.C., where his Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency under Theodore Roosevelt. During her time in the nation's capital, she became "close friends" with Kate Bacon Nixon, wife of Nevada Senator George S. Nixon, and during the summer of 1907 took an extended trip to Nevada and the West at Mrs. Nixon's invitation.
Leah Burton's suffrage activism can be traced to early 1915, when she met Mabel Vernon and Florence Bayard Hilles, who were attempting to organize Sussex County for the Congressional Union (CU), an increasingly militant group operating under the umbrella of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Vernon and Hilles had taken a "suffrage flyer," likely Hilles's Cadillac, on a swing through the state, drumming up support for an effort to amend the Delaware state constitution to enfranchise women. The car proved unequal to the state's muddy roads, so that much of the journey was made by horse-drawn carriage. At the women's Lewes stop, Burton proposed a pro-suffrage resolution that the gathering passed unanimously. Later in 1915, she served as a Delaware delegate to the CU convention meeting in Washington, DC.
Sidelined by an auto accident in the summer of 1917, Leah Burton re-emerged into public activism as an organizer for the wartime Liberty Loan fund-raising program. Already a politically well-connected individual with plenty of insights into how canvassing and grassroots campaigning were done, Burton turned her "exceedingly important" Liberty Loan experience to the task of ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment. By 1919 when she headed up the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association's legislative committee, she had turned away from the militancy of the CU, now the National Woman's Party (NWP) and dedicated her time and energy to NAWSA's Delaware affiliate. Along with Mabel Ridgely and the Equal Suffrage Association's leadership, she asserted throughout the ratification process that Sussex County women did indeed want the right to vote, and at one point verbally challenged an out-of-state anti-suffrage organizer's attempt to address a Sussex County gathering.
In November, 1920, at the age of forty-two, Leah Burton married Dr. Rowland Gardner Paynter of Georgetown, Delaware. Paynter was a prominent physician like her father; unlike him (and Leah herself), he was a Democrat. In 1908, he had been his party's nominee for Governor but had lost the election. The couple made their home in Georgetown, where, in addition to practicing medicine, Rowland Paynter was president of a local bank. The Paynters had no children. Until her father's death in 1927, she regularly travelled the seventeen miles between her new home and Hiram Burton's residence in Lewes, and cared for him during his final illness. In 1955, she donated a window in his honor to St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Lewes.
During the post-suffrage years, her political activity was most visible in an effort to repeal national prohibition. Although a strong supporter of temperance, she came to believe that the Prohibition (Eighteenth) Amendment had created a swamp of corruption, violence, alcoholism, and law-breaking, and had done little to limit alcohol consumption. She preferred to approach temperance through education and character training. In championing repeal, she found herself in the company of former suffrage allies, such as Mabel Ridgely and Marjorie Speakman, but also former anti-suffragists, such as Elizabeth Bradford du Pont Bayard (Florence Bayard Hilles's sister-in-law). By 1930, she was chairing the Delaware affiliate of the Women's Organization for Prohibition Reform.
During the 1940s, and especially after her husband's death of liver disease in 1944, Leah Burton Paynter's interests shifted towards historic preservation and Sussex County's colonial heritage. Continuing to live in her home on "The Square" in Georgetown, she took part in reclamation work through the Society of Colonial Dames and helped with exhibits of colonial silver at local galleries. At her death in 1968, her large bequest and donation of family antiques, silver, and portraiture enabled the Lewes Historical Society to restore and furnish the "sumptuous" Burton-Ingram house, now part of a museum district, Shipcarpenter Square, in Lewes. She was buried with her husband and her parents in Saint Paul's Episcopal Cemetery in Georgetown.
Genealogical information on the Burton and Paynter families can be gleaned from the vital records, decennial censuses, and genealogical charts found on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. Local newspapers digitized via ChroniclingAmerica.org and newspapers.com provide useful details on Leah Burton's personal life and suffrage work, as well as her interest in historic preservation. A photo of Leah Burton appeared in the Wilmington Evening Journal, July 16, 1919, p. 16.
These obituaries proved to be of particular utility: "Mrs. Rowland G. Paynter," Wilmington Morning News, February 14, 1968, p. 33; "Dr. Rowland G. Paynter Dies in Phila.," Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, December 16, 1944, pp. 1, 3; "Dr. Hiram R. Burton Dies After Long Illness at Lewes," Morning News, June 18, 1927, pp. 1, 4.
For details on her role in the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, see the Minutes of the Association's Executive Committee, 1916-1919, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely Collection, Woman Suffrage Records, Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware (#9200 R09, 002, folder 1).
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: 349-70; and Carol E. Hoffecker, "Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign," Delaware History, 20:3 (Spring-Summer, 1983): 149-67.