Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Willabelle Shurter (Symonds), 1882-1969
By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware, Emerita
Suffragist, Red Cross Volunteer, Clubwoman
Willabelle (Willa Belle or Willa) Shurter served as one of two auditors for the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association during the effort to convince Delaware's Republican governor, John R. Townsend, Jr., to call a special legislative session in order to consider ratifying the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Elected to the position at the Association's annual meeting in November, 1919, Shurter served until March, 1920, when she left Delaware for an extended trip to Alabama. The result was that by the time she returned in June, she had missed all of the drama that surrounded the special session, which met from March 22 until June 2. The reasons for her absence are unclear, but her appointment to the auditor's post represented a vote of confidence in her skills from the Association's members. The other auditor with whom she served, Emalea Pusey Warner, had been a committed suffragist since the 1890s and was known to have an eye for talent and an ability to bring previously uncommitted individuals into the suffrage fold.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 12, 1882, Willabelle Shurter grew up in Elsmere, a streetcar suburb three miles outside the city. Her father, E. B. Shurter, secretary of the Wilmington and Northern Railroad, advanced his career substantially by becoming a private secretary to one of Delaware's U.S. Senators, Henry A. du Pont, the Railroad's president and general secretary. A Republican, Henry du Pont held his Senate seat for almost two full terms during the era when state legislatures elected senators. In 1916, after the 17th Amendment to the Constitution permitted the voters of the states to elect senators, du Pont lost his seat to Democrat Josiah Wolcott. The Shurter home would likely have been one where politics were a regular topic of discussion and Senator du Pont's position on woman suffrage a matter of some interest. He was, at best, wishy-washy on the issue, taking the view that state suffrage was the preferred method of enfranchising women and endorsing an educational or property qualification for women voting.
Willa Shurter's role as the Delaware Association's auditor was her one foray into suffrage activism. Earlier, she was a regular performer in local musical events and an energetic Red Cross volunteer, especially during the Great War. During her time as a Delaware Equal Suffrage Association auditor, Shurter forged an important bridge with the Red Cross, arranging and staffing a suffrage association booth for a Red Cross membership drive. However mild the effort may have appeared (it gained the group a thousand new members), the coalition-building it represented was a significant suffrage strategy, particularly given that president of the Delaware Red Cross was a well-known anti-suffragist, Emily P. Bissell.
After 1920, Willabelle Shurter could be found in women's club and civics club meetings, volunteering with the Girl Scouts, adding her alto voice to church choirs, and continuing her commitment to the Red Cross. In 1923, in an Episcopal Church ceremony, she married George C. Symonds, a British-born veteran of the Great War who had served in France. A bricklayer and contractor by trade, George had moved to Wilmington around 1919; after their marriage, the couple, who had no children, lived in New Jersey. By the early 1940s, with George having returned to military service as a captain in the U.S. Army, they were living in Idaho and Utah. After the Second World War, George's postings took them to Germany and Italy. At his retirement, he had attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In the 1950s, the couple moved back to Delaware, where Willa joined the Newark New Century Club. Willabelle Shurter Symonds died in Wilmington in May, 1969; George survived her by nine years. Both are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Basic genealogical information on the Shurter family and on George Symonds can be gleaned from the vital records, decennial censuses, military registers, naturalization declarations, and other materials found on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. Local newspapers digitized via ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov and Newspapers.com, provide useful details on Willabelle Shurter's musical interests, Red Cross Work, suffrage and women's club commitments, and personal life.
The following obituaries added helpful information:
"E.B. Shurter Dead after an Illness of Seven Weeks," Wilmington Morning News, April 2, 1923, pp. 1, 8.
"Mrs. Katherine E. Shurter," Wilmington Morning News, April 11, 1941, p. 20.
"Mrs. George C. Symonds," Wilmington Evening Journal, May 20, 1969, p. 36.
"George C. Symonds," Wilmington Morning News, February 8, 1978, p. 38.
Other useful newspaper article include:
"Red Cross Drive Wins Members in Rural Districts," Wilmington Evening Journal, November 5, 1919, pp. 1, 20.
"Splendid Response to Red Cross Call," Wilmington Evening Journal, November 26, 1919, pp. 1, 11.
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).
These secondary works provide context on Delaware's suffrage story: 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).