As executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, Estelle Griswold led the legal battle for the elimination of the state’s anti-birth control statute. Her efforts resulted in a Supreme Court case that fundamentally altered constitutional law and the definition of privacy. This far-reaching decision continues to reverberate decades later in the debates over human rights, privacy and reproductive freedom.
Estelle Trebert was born in Hartford in 1900. As a young woman, she studied voice at the Hartt College of Music and also pursued her studies in Paris. In 1927, she moved to Washington, D.C. with her husband, Richard Griswold, where she began pre-medical studies and was employed as a medical technologist. Working with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association and world-wide church organizations in the 1940s, Griswold helped relocate displaced persons and learned first-hand the devastating effects of poverty when she visited the slums of Rio de Janiero, Algiers and Puerto Rico. These travels motivated her interest in population control and she believed that inadequate information about contraception was a major cause of human misery, both abroad and even in certain segments of the Connecticut population.
Returning to Connecticut, Griswold joined the Planned Parenthood League and soon became its executive director, a position she held until 1965. At that time, Connecticut had a strict contraception statute that had been enacted in 1879 (under the sponsorship of state legislator P.T. Barnum). It banned the sale and use of birth control and had already withstood numerous challenges, both in the legislature and in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court had already refused to hear two other cases challenging Connecticut’s law. Under the law, a woman in Connecticut—married or unmarried—could not legally go into a pharmacy and purchase any form of birth control, nor was she allowed to ask the pharmacist how to avoid an unplanned pregnancy. With Griswold’s leadership, Planned Parenthood volunteers initiated “border runs” to transport women to birth control clinics in Rhode Island and New York, where such medical attention was legal.
In 1961, in order to put Connecticut's ban on birth control to the test, Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton opened a birth control clinic in New Haven to dispense contraceptives. This simple act of civil disobedience, followed by their arrest and conviction, ultimately led to one of the most far-reaching revolutions in constitutional history. The case for Planned Parenthood was litigated by Catherine Roraback, who helped found the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union in 1948. Griswold v. Connecticut, decided by the Supreme Court in 1965, not only overturned an archaic obscenity law, but ended up defining a new constitutional right to privacy.
Estelle Griswold died in Fort Meyers, Fla., in August 1981. Griswold v. Connecticut led the way for other critical decisions, especially Roe v. Wade in 1973 that legalized abortion and Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 that resulted in a constitutional protection of sexual privacy. Griswold’s courage and determination continue to pave the way for further protection of women’s rights as her landmark case set tremendous precedent for future Supreme Court decisions.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.