Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of [Estella] May Price [Mrs. J. Ernest] Phillips, 1863-1927
By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware, Emerita
Clubwoman, Suffragist, Democratic Party Advocate
May Price Phillips was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, founded in 1895, making her most significant contributions during the group's first two decades. In 1896, as the delegates to a convention drafting a new state constitution were preparing to meet, she circulated petitions asking them to drop the requirement that voters be male. Her colleagues singled out her success in getting "prominent citizens" to sign the petitions. Despite the suffragists' efforts, the new 1897 constitution continued to define voters as "male." By 1899, Phillips had been elected Recording Secretary of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, a position she filled until 1908. Later, in 1916, she held office as the group's 3rd vice-president. In the organization, she worked with pioneering white suffrage leaders, including Martha Churchman Cranston, Mary de Vou, Emalea Pusey Warner, and Margaret White Houston. She was absent, however, during the struggle in Delaware for the 19th Amendment's passage and ratification, instead concentrating on her involvement in the Delaware State Federation of Women's Clubs.
Born Estella May Price on May 6, 1863 in Still Pond, Kent County, Maryland, May was the daughter of George Washington Price and Mary Ringgold Price, who ran a prosperous farm. Named for a sister who had died, she seems rarely to have called herself Estella or Estelle, preferring to be known as May. Her mother died in 1877; her father, who had remarried, died in 1889. By the early 1890s, May Price was living in Philadelphia and visiting New Castle, Delaware, a colonial-era town about 35 miles southwest along the Delaware River. There, she met J. Ernest Phillips, a native of Seaford, Delaware who had recently moved from the southern part of the state to take up a post as station agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He soon began also serving as clerk of the new town council. The couple married in Philadelphia in 1894. In New Castle, May joined the historic Immanuel Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1898, she and Ernest moved into commodious new two-story residence at 111 West 6th Street, now part of New Castle's historic district. The couple had no children.
In New Castle, May Price Phillips became active in the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association and the town's Good Government Club, the latter a short-lived political reform movement that supported women's suffrage as a mechanism for "cleaning up" politics. For his part, Ernest was enamored of the Single Tax movement, an economic and social reform based on the ideas of Henry George, whose 1879 book Progress and Poverty attracted a large following and, in Delaware, the formation of a single tax community, Arden. Devotees of single taxation sought to tax only the increase in the value of land, not improvements upon land. They often identified as socialists; most were strong suffragists. Whether Ernest Phillips's interest in the movement included those principles is unclear, but local newspapers document his involvement in the Delaware Single Tax Society between 1896 and 1911. In the latter year, he served as one of two vice-presidents, the other being Frank Stephens, a founder of Arden and a well-known suffragist.
May Phillips's reasons for leaving her active role in the suffrage cause remain obscure. Like many white clubwomen, including her sister-in-law, Mary Phillips Eskridge, she belonged to a local group--the New Castle Century Club--participating in its current events class and serving, in turn, as vice-president (1917) and president (1918 and 1922). Because the club, like its counterparts across the state, enrolled both suffragists and anti-suffragists, the members took no stand on suffrage, believing the issue to be too divisive. But divisiveness was an unavoidable feature in suffrage circles. As the Delaware Congressional Union (CU), led by New Castle resident Florence Bayard Hilles, pressed forward with militant activities that evoked disapproval from the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, its New Castle affiliate experienced a split in loyalties. In March 1916, a majority of the New Castle group voted to join the CU (soon to become the National Woman's Party). Phillips remained with the Equal Suffrage Association, but it appears that after November, 1916, she dropped her involvement. Once the U.S. entered the Great War, she gave her time to Liberty Loan fund-raising and related activities. (In Sussex County, Mary Phillips Eskridge had a high profile in Liberty Loan work.)
Although not involved in the failed struggle to secure Delaware's ratification of the 19th Amendment, May Phillips wrote a coda to her suffragist past in June, 1920, when the town of New Castle held its first school board election under a new and controversial school reform law. Of the 110 ballots cast, two came from eligible women. One was May Phillips; the other was Catherine Thornton Boyle, a local munitions worker and stalwart member of the National Woman's Party who in 1919 had served five days in jail for participating in "watchfire" protests outside the White House.
During the 1920s, May Price Phillips participated in politics as a Democrat, becoming secretary of the Women's Democratic Club of New Castle Hundred and in 1922, an alternate delegate to the party's state convention. Known as a skilled horsewoman, she also joined the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She died at home of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 9, 1927. After a funeral at Immanuel Protestant Episcopal Church, she was buried at Chelten Hills Cemetery in Pennsylvania. Ernest Phillips lived until 1952; he never remarried.
Genealogical information on the Price and Phillips families can gleaned from the vital records, decennial censuses, and city directories found on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. Local newspapers digitized via ChroniclingAmerica.org and Newspapers.com were especially significant in uncovering the details of Mary Price Phillips's personal life and political career. In particular, see these obituaries:
"Mrs. J. Ernest Phillips Dies Unexpectedly," Wilmington Evening Journal, January 10, 1927, p. 10;
and "John Ernest Phillips," Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, December 12, 1952, p. 27.
Note that in newspaper sources she can be located under "Estelle May Price Phillips," "May Price Phillips," "Mae Price Phillips," "Mrs. J. Ernest Phillips," and "Mrs. J.E. Phillips."
These newspaper articles provided key details:br "Captain Phillips Wins a Philadelphia Bride," Wilmington Evening Journal, December 4, 1894, p. 4;
"Phillips-Price; New Castle's Popular City Clerk Married in Philadelphia this Morning," Wilmington Every Evening, December 5, 1894, p. 1;
"Want Woman Suffrage," Evening Journal, December 29, 1896, p. 2;
"New Castle Suffragists Join Congressional Union," Evening Journal, March, 18, 1916, p. 11;
"School Elections under New Code," Wilmington Morning News, June 21, 1920, p. 8.
For the secession of the New Castle Suffrage Club from the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association and her role as third vice-president, see the Minutes of the Association's Executive Committee, 1916-1919, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely Collection, Women Suffrage Records, Delaware Public Archives, #9200 R09, 002, folder 1.
Biographies of her suffragist sister-in-law, Mary Phillips Eskridge and the other 1920 school election voter, Catherine Thornton Boyle, can be found on this web site. See
On the history of New Castle's historic district in which "The J. Ernest Phillips House" is located, see https://www.livingplaces.com/DE/New_Castle_County/New_Castle_City/New_Castle_Historic_District.html
On the founding of Arden, Delaware, see Mark Taylor, "Utopia by Taxation: Frank Stephens and the Single Tax Community of Arden, Delaware," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126: 2 (April 2002): 305-25.
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 Bjornson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), I: 349-370; 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).