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7 Delaware Women Who Changed the World

Montage of Delawarean women

Written on: March 8th, 2018 in Blog Posts

International Women’s Day is March 8, 2018 

Delaware has been home to a lot of groundbreaking women. Here are 7 amazing women that have made history – in Delaware and nationwide. 

Annie Jump Cannon

Portrait of Annie Jump Cannon

Photo is public domain

Annie Jump Cannon was born on December 11, 1863, in Dover, Delaware. She was interested in astronomy from a young age, as she and her mother referenced an old astronomy textbook to identify stars seen from their attic. She attended Wilmington Conference Academy, today known as Wesley College, located in Dover. Cannon later attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, one of the top academic schools for women. She was a student under Sarah Frances Whiting, one of the few women physicists in the United States at the time. She graduated as valedictorian with a degree in physics in 1884. 

In 1896, Cannon became a member of “Pickering’s Women”, a group of women hired by Harvard Observatory. She created the Harvard Classification Scheme, the first serious attempt to organize and classify stars based on their temperatures and spectral types.

 In 1925 she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate of science from Oxford University. In 1935, she created the Annie J. Cannon Prize for “the woman of any country, whose contributions to the science of astronomy are the most distinguished.”

Stephanie Kwolek

Photo of Stephanie Kwolek

Photo from the Science History Institute

Stephanie Kwolek was a chemist and an inventor who worked at DuPont for forty years. She is best known as the inventor of Kevlar. For her discovery she was awarded the DuPont company’s Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement. In 1995, she became the fourth woman to be added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1946, Kwolek graduated from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University with a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in chemistry. In 1946, she was offered a position at DuPont’s Buffalo, New York, facility. She later moved to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1950 to continue to work for DuPont. While working for DuPont, Kwolek invented Kevlar, though she did not know what it would be used for, she knew that the compound, five times stronger then steel by weight could have many uses. 

In 1980, Kwolek received the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists, and an Award for Creative Invention from the American Chemical Society. In 1986, Kwolek retired as a research associate for DuPont, but continued to show a passion for chemistry for the rest of her life until her death in 2014.  

Emily Bissell

picture of Emily Bissell

Photo is public domain

Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1861, Emily Bissell is known for being the founder of Wilmington’s first public kindergarten. She is also known for her efforts to introduce child labor laws in Delaware. In 1883, she founded an organization, now known as the West End Neighborhood House that originally provided social services to Wilmington’s immigrant Irish and German families. 

Bissell was passionate finding the cure for tuberculosis. She popularized the system where people attached a special kind of stamp to their mail during the Christmas season, and the proceeds would go to fighting the disease. Though the idea failed at first, Bissell continued on, eventually making three thousand dollars, which was well beyond her original goal.  

She spent the remainder of her life promoting Christmas stamps and helping to eliminate tuberculosis before dying in 1948. In 1980, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 15 cent stamp in her honor. 

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

photo of Mary Ann Shadd

Photo is public domain

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a Anti-slavery activist, journalist, publisher, teacher and lawyer. She was the first black woman publisher in North America and the first woman publisher in Canada. Cary was one of the most outspoken female proponents of the abolition of slavery of her day, and promoted equality for all people.

Cary was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on October 9, 1823 to a socially activist father. Her family moved to Pennsylvania (at the time had better educational opportunities for Black children), and she attended a Quaker school. 

In 1987 she was posthumously designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project. She was also honored by Canada; named a Person of National Historic Significance. Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s former residence in the U Street Corridor in Washington D.C. was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Margaret Irving Handy

Photo of Margaret Irving Handy

Photo from the National Institute of Health

Margaret Irving Handy was born in Smyrna, Delaware and was the daughter of L. Irving Handy, a U.S. Representative. After graduating from medical school, she was the first female native-born Delawarean to become a doctor and was also the state’s first pediatrician. She established a pediatric clinic. She became Assistant Chief at Delaware Hospital, and later in 1921 she became Chief of Pediatrics where she set up a nursery for premature babies.

 In 1945, she established the first mothers’ milk bank at Delaware Hospital (now Wilmington Hospital) in Wilmington, Delaware, after a hospital board member whose baby son died because she was unable to nurse him. The bank supplied breast milk to mothers throughout the United States as well as for research purposes, for 40 years.

She received multiple awards including New York Eye and Ear Infirmary’s Elizabeth Blackwell Citation and the Annie Jump Cannon medal from Wesley College.  In 1953, she was awarded the Josiah Marvel Cup for outstanding contributions to the state and to society in the field of children’s medicine.

Mabel Vernon

photo of Mabel Vernon

Photo is public domain

Mabel Vernon was born on September 19, 1883 in Wilmington, Delaware. She was  a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Vernon attended the 1912 convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association as an usher. Vernon was one of the principal members of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage. 

She was one of the Silent Sentinels, which was a group of women in favor of women’s suffrage who protested in front of the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. 

Pauline A. Young 

Photo of Pauline A Young

Photo from the University of Delaware’s library

Pauline Young was an African-American teacher, librarian, historian, lecturer, community activist, humanitarian. She was a devoted lifelong member of her local and the national chapter of the NAACP. Born in Massachusetts, Young grew up near an underground railroad point before moving to Delaware. Young joined the NAACP at the age of 12, and she served nine years as the secretary. Later, she became the president of the Wilmington, Delaware branch.

Young was honored by the Wilmington Branch of the National Association of University Women, she was recognized for outstanding service to the Home, the Community, the State, and the Nation and was hereby inducted to the Hall of Fame of Delaware women. Young received a Certificate of Honorary Membership from Delaware State College’s Black Studies Program.  The University of Delaware Library renamed the residency program in honor of Young.

Visit the Delaware Department of Human Resources to see a list of all awardees in the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women.

See events happening this month for International Women’s Day in Delaware, by

Check out the Redefining Women in the Workplace Lecture by Leading National Women’s Advocate, Lisa Maatz in Honor of Senator Margaret Rose Henry & Women’s History Month. The event will take place on March 28th from 10 am – Noon in Dover at the Public Archives.  The event is open to the public and we strongly encourage supporters of gender parity in the workplace to attend.  Find out more by connecting with the Office of Women’s Advancement in the Delaware Department of Human Resources. 

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