Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Clare Laurence (Mrs. John W.) Brassington, 1874-1966
By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware, Emerita
President, Delaware Equal Suffrage Association
When Mary Clare Brassington became president of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association in November, 1915, the organization was almost twenty years old and experiencing pressures from several sides. Its founding president, Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) stalwart Martha Churchman Cranston was retiring; its leaders were struggling to expand the group's membership; and internal challenges from the Delaware branch of the Congressional Union (CU) were threatening the group's unity. During Brassington's presidency, the Equal Suffrage Association undertook some initiatives designed to move the organization towards more broad-based suffrage organizing (at least among white women), while also seeking a working relationship with the CU, whose energetic chair, Florence Bayard Hilles, encouraged defections from the older organization and seemed to dominate press reports as the state's leading suffragist. The group continued its strategy of seeking both a state constitutional amendment and a federal suffrage amendment, lobbying the state's congressional delegation. It also welcomed two staff organizers from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) who helped recruit some new affiliates. At the same time, a key affiliate in the town of New Castle, to which Hilles belonged, withdrew in order to join the CU.
Born in Baltimore County, Maryland in 1874, Mary Clare Laurence married John R. W. Brassington, a mechanical engineer, around 1892. John Brassington had been born in 1866 in India where his father, the architect J.W. Brassington, was designing public buildings in the Indo-Saracenic style. He grew up in England and came to the United States in 1887, settling in Baltimore, where Mary Clare Laurence likely met him. The couple had two children, Marion (later Hughes), born in 1895 and Susan L. (later Maynard), born in 1897. The family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, around 1906, where John Brassington worked for the Du Pont Company before opening his own engineering firm. In joining Wilmington's First Unitarian Society, Mary Brassington chose a progressive congregation that, almost alone among Delaware's white-majority churches, had some African American members, including Howard School administrator Alice G. Baldwin. Among the church's white congregants were Emalea Pusey Warner and Anna Cootsman Bach, both dedicated suffragists and women's rights activists.
After participating with the Delaware delegation in the famous March 4, 1913 suffrage procession in Washington, D.C., Mary Clare Brassington raised her profile within the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, becoming a delegate to the group's annual convention. At Delaware's first big suffrage parade held in Wilmington on May 2, 1914, coordinated by the CU and the Equal Suffrage Association and led by Florence Bayard Hilles, Brassington headed up the homemakers' section. Eighteen months later, she was elected president of the Association, replacing Martha Cranston, who became honorary president as a tribute to her pioneering role in the group. As president, Brassington faced the task of guiding the group through the difficult transition from a focus on state suffrage advocacy to organizing to promote a federal constitutional amendment. As president, too, Brassington represented the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association at NAWSA's annual meetings. Likewise, she attended both the Republican and Democratic national political conventions in the summer of 1916, participating in suffrage parades at both events.
Early in 1917, when her husband's career required the family to re-locate to Holyoke, Massachusetts, her colleagues accepted Brassington's resignation "with regret" and gave her a farewell luncheon. She returned to the state in 1919, in time to participate actively in the effort to convince Delaware's governor to call a special legislative session to consider ratifying the 19th Amendment. When the special session met in spring, 1920, she joined her co-workers in lobbying for ratification. She and several colleagues made headlines in May, 1920, when they organized a petition drive designed to confront a Delaware House member, Wilmington Democrat John Edward "Bull" McNabb, who, in virulently anti-suffrage and racially inflammatory speeches, had attacked African American voters and claimed that there was little support for suffrage in his district. In two hours, nineteen suffragists collected 500 constituent signatures on a pro-suffrage petition. They presented the petition to a "noticeably nervous" McNabb on the House floor.
The effort to make Delaware the final ratifying state failed; the House adjourned in June 1920 without taking a crucial vote. In the aftermath, Mary Clare Brassington joined the new League of Women Voters and expressed her support for Prohibition. Soon, however, her husband's work took the couple, first, to Port Arthur, Canada, and then to New Jersey. By 1940, they were living in Shorewood, outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with the family of their older daughter Marion Brassington Hughes. In 1960, after John Brassington's death, Mary Clare Brassington moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she died on January 6, 1966.
Basic genealogical information on the Laurence and Brassington families can be gleaned from the vital records, decennial censuses, naturalization, travel, and other materials found on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. Local newspapers digitized via ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov and Newspapers.com, provide useful details on Mary Clare Brassington's suffrage work, civic commitments, and personal life. A brief obituary appeared in the Fort Lauderdale News, January 7, 1966, p. 12.
The following newspaper articles proved informative:
"Off for Chicago; Mrs. John W. Brassington to Represent Suffragists at Convention," Wilmington Morning News, June 6, 1916, p. 7;
"Says Suffrage Has Advanced," Wilmington Morning News, June 24, 1916, p. 18;
"Suffragists Pleased with Hughes' Support," Wilmington Every Evening, August 2, 1916, p.1;
"Suffragists to Meet Dr. Burton," Wilmington Morning News, October 27, 1916, p. 7;
"Senate Will Probably Act on Ratification; to Reconvene Today; John E. M'Nabb to be Presented with Petition Five Yards Long Containing 500 Names," Wilmington Morning News, May 5, 1920, pp. 1, 9;
"M'Nabb Jarred by Women's Petition," Wilmington Evening Journal, May 6, 1920, p. 18;
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 her church affiliation, see First Unitarian Society of Wilmington Records, Membership Records, Box 3, Delaware Historical Society.
The following secondary works provide context on Delaware's suffrage story and Mary Clare Brassington's activism: Mary R. de Vou, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware," in Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marion Bjornson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), I: 349-70; Carol E. Hoffecker, "Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign," Delaware History 20:3 (Spring-Summer, 1983): 149-67; and Anne M. Boylan, Votes for Delaware Women (Newark: University of Delaware Press, forthcoming).