Estelle Griswold

Estelle Griswold

Induction Category:
Reformers

Born: 1900

Died: 1981

Inducted: 1994

Town: New Haven

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