The ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote, touched the lives of nearly every man and woman in the country. Delaware, Sussex County and Milton were no exceptions; the amendment was hotly debated here, and opposition was as fierce as the support for its passage. In this post, I will take a look at what transpired in the First State up until the amendment was ratified, and then I will take a look at one Milton woman’s small celebration of one of the nation’s first steps into the modern social era.
The Longest Campaign
On September 20, 1920, voter registration was open to women in Delaware and the majority of the nation’s adult women for the first time in American history. After nearly a century of increasingly militant campaigning by a coalition of women’s action groups that ultimately unified under the banner of the NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association), the 19th Amendment handily passed the House and Senate in 1919 and was sent out to the state legislatures for the required ratification by three-fourths of them. With 48 states in the U. S. at the time, the magic number needed was 36.
Tennessee, breaking ranks with all of the southern states, became the 36th legislature to vote for ratification in August of 1920. Within days the 19th Amendment became the law of the land. Sadly, prominent early leaders of the woman’s suffrage movement – Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – did not live to witness the final victory of their struggle. The leadership of the movement was passed to Carrie Chapman Catt well before the amendment’s ratification
First State, Among The Last
So what was the First State’s role in the first big win for women’s rights?
Words such as “adamant opposition” come to mind. In the 19th century, the Delaware state legislature had numerous opportunities to join Wyoming and 14 other states that had already extended voting rights to women, with some of them having done so decades before ratification of the 19th Amendment. Each time a measure was brought to the State House in Dover, it was met with derision and squashed. Despite then-Governor John G. Townsend Jr.’s support for it, the first attempt to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1919 failed. According to a possibly apocryphal account, opponents of the amendment kidnapped the House Speaker and held him in a local tavern so he could not cast his vote.
The next attempt was in April of 1920. Intense lobbying for passage by Carrie Chapman Catt of NAWSA, President Eamon De Valera of the Irish Free Republic, and the powerful voices of Delaware suffragists Mabel Vernon and Florence Hilles, was for naught; when the 19th Amendment was brought to the floor of the legislature for a vote, that august body blew its chance to make history by voting against it, leaving it to Tennessee to pass the measure. The Sussex County delegation – all Democrats, all men – unanimously and vehemently denounced any attempt to grant voting rights to women.
Delaware did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1923.
Ida Fox And Her Theater
There was an interesting footnote to the story, however, and it involved an unusual Milton woman: Ida J. Fox. When the Sussex County voter registrar arrived at his office in Georgetown in the early morning of September 20th, 1920, Ida J. Fox had already been waiting there since 6:45 AM. She spoke of a strong desire to be the first woman in Delaware to register to vote. She was duly registered by 7:00 AM. Whether she was actually the first, or among the first, cannot be determined. She was the one, however, who got the attention of the press.
Ida was the daughter of one of Milton’s very successful businessmen, Samuel J. Wilson. Born in Milton in 1873, her early life followed the familiar path of eight years of school, working alongside her parents, and marrying young, around the age of seventeen or eighteen. She married William H. Fox, probably around 1890, subsequently giving birth to William Jr. in 1891 and daughter Lydia in 1893. A third child, named after Ida’s father, was born in 1895 but died in infancy.
Ida stayed at home during the first few year of her marriage, while her husband tried his hand at business. He had some bad luck, however. The Wilmington Evening Journal of December 30, 1890, reported that a fire in the downtown area destroyed William H. Fox’s grocery store, with a loss estimated at $5000. It was a tough break for a twenty-two year old man just getting started, and it came just before or shortly after he and Ida were married. With a father-in-law like Samuel J. Wilson, however, he may have had a safety net of sorts. William reported his occupation as “hotel proprietor” on daughter Lydia’s birth certificate, something that he would have needed financial help in acquiring. That enterprise also failed, for reasons unknown; sometime after 1894 the family moved to the Charlottesville area in Virginia, presumably for William’s employment.
She and the children moved back to Milton sometime between 1900 and 1904, without her husband; William and Ida would be formally divorced in September of 1909, and he would die the following month.
Having lived in the background for most of her adult life, Ida now stepped forward. She began by buying a cottage on Broadkill Beach in April of 1910, which she started advertising for rent by that June. It was a source of income for her until it burned down in 1915. In February of 1911 she bought an existing bakery on Union Street south of the river, and established a business that included a soda fountain and ice cream parlor. Her son William H. Fox Jr. built Milton’s first movie theater, and when he died prematurely in 1919 she took over its management. The theater, which stood on the site of the present day Milton Theater, was acquired by the Milton Fire Department in 1930, who continued to run movies in that space and used it for a community center. That building was destroyed by fire in 1938.
Ida Fox should be celebrated as a spirited lady committed to her enterprises in town and for her embrace of the political zeitgeist; there is little of Ida Fox’s legacy that remains visible in Milton today, however, except for a Delaware state historical marker in front of the present day Milton Theater. This marker, however, gets several key facts wrong. As previously noted, the Fox Theater began operations in 1914, the year it was completed, under the management of Ida Fox’s son William Husbands Fox, Jr. Upon William’s death in 1919, Ida took over day-to-day operations. The marker does not mention that Ida sold the theater to the Milton Fire Department in 1930, The key error, though, is that the marker fails to mention that the original Fox Theater was destroyed by fire in 1938. The present-day Milton Theater was built by the Fire Department in 1939, and was used for all of the purposes mentioned on the marker.