Women We Celebrate
Florence Bayard Hilles
Florence Bayard Hilles was a lifelong women’s rights leader, organizer, and equal rights orator from Newcastle, Delaware. She was born in 1866, the daughter of Thomas F. Bayard, the first United States Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State under President Cleveland.
Hilles was a founder of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and served in numerous leadership roles throughout the suffrage and equal rights movements. During the suffrage movement, Hilles was Congressional Union (CU) and NWP state chairman for Delaware and worked with fellow CU organizer from Delaware, Mabel Vernon. Hilles was elected to the executive board when the CU and NWP merged in March 1917.
Hilles was instrumental in the Congressional Union’s 1916 campaign to unite women voters in the formation of a National Woman’s Party. Most notably, she was a principal speaker on the April 1916 Suffrage Special journey to the western enfranchised states where she led dramatic open air meetings from platforms and small stations to generate support for national suffrage. In May 1916, during the Special’s stop in Seattle, Hilles scattered materials promoting the Woman’s Party Convention from a hydroplane. Fellow trip leader, Lucy Burns, also undertook one of these exciting flights for suffrage.
Though Hilles was descended from a prominent Democratic family, she set aside her party affiliation to support the Congressional Union’s efforts to support only candidates and parties that would work for national suffrage. She hoped to appeal to her fellow Democrats in the west for their solidarity and stated she would “work to put the party in power which will give to women the thing which they seek” (The Suffragist, April 15, 1916). She lobbied for the federal suffrage amendment and campaigned against the Democratic Party in Colorado in late 1916.
In the true spirit of the Congressional Union, Hilles faced confrontation head-on in her suffrage activism. In December 1916, she and several other suffragists unfurled a banner while President Wilson addressed Congress on the subject of men’s rights in Puerto Rico. The banner read: “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” and prompted considerable attention and controversy.
At a meeting of the National Woman’s Party in March 1917, Hilles made recommendations on the NWP’s policy with respect to World War I: “I think it clear that the policy of the National Woman’s Party should be to work, to continue to work, for the enfranchisement of women and that we should go on unceasingly until it shall be accomplished” (The Suffragist, March 10, 1917). Hilles recognized the political diversity within the NWP and acknowledged that members would have varied responses to the war; nevertheless, the NWP should focus on its original purpose of achieving suffrage. Hilles’ own response to the war included serving as a munitions worker.
When the NWP began their picket campaign of the White House Hilles joined the picket line, ultimately facing arrest and imprisonment. Hilles led a delegation of almost one thousand women in the Grand Picket of March 4, 1917—a several mile march around the White House in fierce wind and torrential rain. She later joined the July 14, 1917 Bastille Day picket, marching with 15 other women and a banner proclaiming the French battle cry “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” All 16 women (including Hilles) were arrested and sentenced to 60 days in Occoquan Workhouse after refusing to pay their $25 fines. Hilles protested the sudden charges, pointing out the five initial months of undisturbed, peaceful picketing. The group was jailed and then later pardoned by the President and released after three days. Hilles later participated in the Watchfire demonstrations of late 1918/early 1919, including leading a group of munitions workers from Delaware to guard the fires.
After the passage of the suffrage amendment by Congress, Hilles turned her attention to its ratification, working for ratification in her home state of Delaware and later in Tennessee. Despite her efforts in Delaware, the state declined to ratify the amendment. Extensive lobby efforts by Hilles and others, however, resulted in a successful ratification campaign in Tennessee—the 36th and final ratification needed to cinch the amendment.
Afterwards, Hilles continued to work for equal rights for women, embarking on speaking tours and assignments to promote the importance of the NWP’s Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and to rally support to lobby Congress. She also lobbied Members of Congress directly, including her brother, Senator Thomas F. Bayard Jr., who in a November 21, 1923 letter apparently declined her request to support the ERA. She was regarded as one of the NWP’s most valued speakers and advocates for the ERA. Hilles also lobbied for the passage of the Equal Nationality Treaty in 1934, an initiative aimed at removing gender discriminations in nationality law.
Building on her leadership during the suffrage movement, Hilles continued as state chairman for the Delaware branch of the NWP, and served as both Acting Chairman and National Chairman of the NWP and as a member of the National Council.
Hilles passed away in 1954, eleven years after the country’s first feminist library (housed in the NWP’s fifth and final headquarters at 144 Constitution Ave NE) was dedicated in her honor, celebrating her efforts as chairman of the library committee. Today, the Florence Bayard Hilles Library stands in recognition of Hilles’ committed leadership of the women’s rights movement throughout her life, and provides a valuable resource to future generations wishing to study the historic struggle for women’s equality.