Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Agnes Y. Downey, 1871-1945
Y.W.C.A. Secretary, President of Delaware Equal Suffrage Association
By Ella Sargent and Taylor Curley, students, and faculty sponsor, Dr. Colleen Hall, Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware
Additional research and editing by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Agnes Y. Downey came to women's suffrage through her involvement in several other reform and volunteer efforts, and particularly through her career as Secretary of the Wilmington, Delaware, branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). As a single professional woman and an advocate for women's rights, she challenged conventional norms for women of her time.
Born in Wilmington on September 28, 1871, Agnes Downey was the eldest of the three surviving children of Stephen Downey and Emily Jane Weldie Downey. Her father Stephen had been born in Dublin, Ireland, and arrived in the United States as a child; her mother's birthplace was Delaware. Stephen Downey was a carpenter and wood turner who formed a successful stair-building business in his adopted city, at the same time becoming involved in local Republican Party politics (he became a citizen in 1888) and serving as an officer in the Wilmington Builders' Exchange. Emily Downey was a life-long member of the Hanover Presbyterian Church, where the couple were married in 1867, and where, as a young woman, Agnes taught Sunday school.
When a group of white Protestant women formed a branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in Wilmington in 1895, Agnes Downey became the group's secretary and teacher of physical education. The position was initially a volunteer one, but in 1904, she accepted a monthly salary, establishing her career as the Wilmington YWCA's general secretary, a job she held until 1913. Like other YW's, the Wilmington association was racially segregated, serving single white women working in the city's shops, mills and factories, and finding ways to serve their needs. Over time, its programs and reach grew; by 1907, the group had several adjoining buildings on King Street, with twenty-two residential bedrooms, classrooms, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool. The Great War threw the group's plans into disarray, while increasing demands for its services to women war workers, but it soldiered on in rented quarters, including a residential space at Ninth and Shipley Streets that included a cafeteria. Involvement in the YWCA brought opportunities for Agnes Downey. For example, in 1908, the board paid for her to attend a ten-month training program at the New York headquarters. Through the Y, too, as well as her memberships in the New Century Club and the Westminster Presbyterian Church, where she participated actively in the congregation's musical programming, Agnes Downey knew and worked with local suffrage leaders, including her co-religionists Ida Perkins Ball and Mary Ospina.
Around 1916, upon her return from a year-long visit to her sister Lydia Hillegas in Santiago, Chile, she became directly involved in the suffrage cause through the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Association. Soon, she was elected treasurer and was serving as a delegate from the Association to a Consumers' League Conference, and to a regional conference on "the Eight-Hour Day for Women." In 1917, she became president of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, an affiliate of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her terms as the group's president and then its treasurer coincided with a major rift with the local branch of the National Woman's Party (NWP) over both strategy and tactics in wartime. The fraying of local ties reflected the national rupture between the NWP and NAWSA, particularly over the NWP's insistence on picketing the White House to press the 19th Amendment forward. In April, 1920, during the failed effort to convince the Delaware Legislature to ratify the Amendment, Agnes Downey addressed a large pro-suffrage rally on Dover's Green, outside Legislative Hall.
Downey often spoke on women's rights, particularly at the New Century Club, where she gave talks on her travel experiences. She was especially motivated by her visits to Chile and her observations on the conditions for women there. In her view, women were marginalized in South America's public and civic life—all the more reason that women in the United States should have the right to vote. She used these talks to reinforce her argument for women's suffrage here at home.
Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, Agnes Y. Downey, like many of her sister suffragists, joined the Delaware League of Women Voters, founded August 27, 1920. At the group's first convention in September, 1920, she volunteered to serve, as a Republican, on a bi-partisan committee studying the federal policy whereby American-born women who married foreign-born men lost their citizenship. Soon, however she was making plans to relocate to Chile, "probably for the rest of her life." Her father and mother had died in 1918 and 1920, respectively, and she would live with her sister Lydia, who had married Santiago-bound dentist Dr. Henry Hillegas in 1902. Before her departure, Agnes Downey organized a Wilmington branch of the Business and Professional Women's Clubs, and was honored by the Westminster Presbyterian Church Choral Club for her years of service. She died in Santiago on December 23, 1945 and was buried there. In her will, she left her entire estate—around $13,500—to Lydia Hillegas, and explicitly disinherited her other surviving sibling, William, a Philadelphia department store manager, "for the reason that I have had no communication or word from him for a number of years past."
Genealogical information on the Downey family can be gleaned from the vital records, decennial censuses, and passports found on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. Local newspapers digitized via ChroniclingAmerica.org and newspapers.com provide a great deal of information on Agnes Downey's personal life, professional undertakings, and suffrage work, as well as on her travels and her family. A photo can be found in her 1922 passport application, available on Ancestry.com.
The following obituaries provided significant details: "Death of Stephen Downey," Wilmington Every Evening, August 7, 1918, p. 6; "Mrs. Downey Dead," Wilmington Evening Journal, May 6, 1920, p. 8; "Miss Agnes Y. Downey," Wilmington Morning News, January 3, 1946, p. 4.
Agnes Downey's will, File #26612, in which she spelled her first name "Agness," can be found at the New Castle County Recorder of Wills Office, Wilmington, Delaware.
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.
For background on the YWCA, see especially Laura M. Pierson, The YWCA of Wilmington: "That They Might Live More Abundantly," 1895-1945 (Wilmington: YWCA, 1945); Nina Mjagkij and Margaret Spratt, eds., Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City (New York: New York University Press, 1997); and Nancy Marie Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 1906-1946 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).