February 24, 2021
By Ryan Schwartz, Interpretive Program Manager at First State Heritage Park
To mark Women’s History Month, First State Heritage Park and Delaware State Parks wish to call attention to some of the remarkable women who have shaped both the state’s history and national history since the earliest days of the republic.
Few were more influential in forging a path for women in Delaware’s political sphere than Vera Gilbride Davis.
Through forty years of public service, including some of the most significant years of the 20th century, Doverite Vera Gilbride Davis gained an impressive reputation for her savvy and maverick approach to politics. That she would be such a trailblazer in the story of governance here in the First State could not have been predicted. Born in Wilmington in 1894, she grew up in an age where women were very much second-class citizens, lacking even the fundamental right to vote.
Gilbride Davis, though, always had a voice to command a room (perhaps it was all that opera training she received as a young ingénue), and when it came to the subject of women’s suffrage, she was bound and determined to make herself heard on the matter.
After the end of the First World War, she became a clarion voice in the First State advocating for the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She campaigned both in Delaware and beyond with such Suffragists as Mabel Lloyd Ridgely and Florence Bayard Hilles. Although the Delaware General Assembly failed to ratify the Amendment, she was among the first to cast a vote when Tennessee made it the law of the land in 1920…voting her husband, lawyer Frank Hall Davis, into the House of Representatives by a razor margin of 16 votes. She waited over three hours to cast her first ballot. Later in life, she recalled the moment: “I didn’t mind. I was a women’s lib advocate when it was tough being for a woman’s right to vote.”
Her own time in the spotlight was yet to come. In 1927, she became the first female Bill Clerk in the Delaware House of Representatives, a position she credited to having “a voice like a foghorn and could be heard all over the place.” This began an impressive string of “firsts” in Delaware politics:
This string of achievements was accomplished through her indomitable will, fiery personality, and keen mind for politics. Though a lifelong Republican, she was regarded as something like a political maverick, a woman with a strong wild card streak who refused to be taken for granted or to be facelessly absorbed into some political clique.
Her election to President Pro Tempore of the State Senate is probably what she is best remembered for down at Legislative Hall today. The other eight Republicans did not even bother to solicit her input on who to put forward for the office, much less consider her…so she crossed the divide and garnered eight Democrats to support her instead!
In spite of all her success, she never forgot her Suffragist roots. On her last day as Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, she looked out across the room and “told those 34 men that I hoped to live to see the day when there would be 34 women in the House and one man.” Today (2021), twelve women sit in the Delaware House of Representatives and seven in the Senate.
After bowing out of political office in 1958, her place in the history books assured, she committed the remainder of her days to philanthropic pursuits, including sitting on the board of Kent General Hospital for a record 24 years.
Vera Gilbride Davis passed away in Dover on May 6, 1974, at age 77. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women in 1982. At the dedication, she was commemorated with a quote she was fond of citing whenever asked why she drove herself to accomplish so much:
“I’m only happy when I’m needed by someone else, and I’m miserable when I’m not.”