In the Fall of 1993, while planning the Connecticut Forum’s final event of the season, “American Women in Focus: Breaking New Ground,” Geena Clonan, then managing Director of the Forum, sought to bring the national focus on remarkable women to a local level by showcasing Connecticut women’s contributions to history. Clonan and her volunteers were surprised to discover that, although there were many Connecticut natives among nationally known women famous for their groundbreaking achievements, there was no organization or venue that collectively celebrated the state’s greatest women. After consultation with the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, Clonan and her team decided to alter the situation by establishing the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
The CWHF team sought community support and continued to partner with the Connecticut Forum, which housed its first offices. As work continued and the Hall began to take shape, its founders realized that, if they were to uncover the lost voices of Connecticut’s unsung heroines, they needed academic clout and found an ideal partner in The Hartford College for Women. The CWHF’s first steering committee was launched in September 1993, and throughout the fall, volunteers and members of the committee engaged in research, dialogue, and investigation to identify great Connecticut women of the past and present who contributed to the state, the nation, and the world in ways that should be celebrated and preserved. Their stories were uncovered in libraries, historic societies, and town halls. But, perhaps more significantly, the researchers learned these women’s stories from other women through the oral history passed from one generation to the next. One key group of women, both then and now, are teachers whose frustration with the lack of women’s history materials inspired and encouraged the CWHF to fill the void.
The First Induction Ceremony
The Steering Committee planned the first Induction Ceremony and launch of the Inductee Portrait Exhibit in the spring of 1994. To fund the portrait exhibit, the Committee turned to Eileen Kraus, then President of Shawmut Bank (now Bank of America), and participant on the Connecticut Forum panel held on May 18, 1994. Kraus was excited by and eager to support the concept, and the bank became one of the Hall’s founding partners in October 1993, joining the Connecticut Forum and the Hartford College for Women. While the Committee continued its research work on the initial class of Inductees, Clonan turned her attention to amassing volunteer support and developing a logo and mission statement. In January 1994, Clonan contacted 100 area women and asked each to contribute $100 to become Charter Members of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Leading up to the inaugural event, she also asked Eileen Kraus to be the organization’s first Chairman and to help in selecting the first Honorary Board.
For the first time in the state’s 300-year history, the collective achievements of Connecticut women, past and present, were publicly showcased on May 19, 1994, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Forty-six women were inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, thirty-six of them posthumously. This inaugural event formed a framework for the Hall to follow in subsequent years:
- Revisiting the achievements of well-known women like Ella Tambussi Grasso, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Katharine Hepburn and Marian Anderson
- Uncovering the important contributions of women whose stories had been forgotten or overlooked like Evelyn Longman Batchelder, sculptor of Bushnell Park’s Spirit of Victory; Betty Tianti, Connecticut’s first female Commissioner of Labor; Maria Sanchez, the first Hispanic elected to the State Legislature; and Emeline Roberts Jones, the first female dentist in America
- Acknowledging the special contributions of those who dared to confront the establishment like Prudence Crandall, run out of town for her attempts to educate “Young Ladies of Color,” and Alice Hamilton, who fought for the legislation to protect workers from toxic substances
The inaugural event was a huge success, covered by all major television networks and radio stations that evening and in newspapers and publications statewide in the weeks and months to follow. When the Inductee Portrait Exhibit was made available for travel, free of charge, hundreds of requests poured in. It was soon evident to Clonan and the other founders that the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame was not simply a community outreach program of the Connecticut Forum, but rather a significant institution unto itself.
To formalize the Induction selection process, in 1996, under the leadership of Dr. Jane Barstow of the University of Hartford, the Consulting Scholars Committee was formed. The scholars provide academic expertise and historical accuracy, evaluate nominations, and annually present to the Board of Trustees a slate of qualified candidates for Induction.
From its launch until 1997, the CWHF operated under the umbrella of the Connecticut Forum. In 1997, the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame became its own independent 501(c)(3) organization. The search for a permanent home began, and the Hall was first housed at the Hartford College for Women. In 1999, the CWHF launched its first capital campaign and raised funds to hire its first executive director.
Over the next several years, as the Hall grew, its educational programming also expanded. In 1999, the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail was launched, creating a network of historic sites around the state dedicated to the interpretation of women’s history. In 2003, the CWHF celebrated its 10th anniversary and revised its logo.
2004 was a pivotal year for the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Connecticut Women Across the Curriculum Throughout the Year, a curriculum project designed to help teachers in grades 4 through 8 integrate women’s history into their curriculum was launched. Interactive classroom activities based on Inductees’ stories and primary source materials encourage teachers to engage their students with women’s history. A second traveling exhibit also launched, making the Inductees’ stories accessible to an even larger audience. We Fight for Roses, Too: Connecticut Women and the Struggle for Equality continues to be a popular exhibit and has been viewed by more than 300,000 people in Connecticut and beyond. 2004 also saw the inauguration of the Ella T. Grasso Center for Women in Politics to honor Governor Grasso’s trailblazing career and her life of public service. Under the auspices of the Grasso Center, from 2005 to 2009 the CWHF hosted hundreds of Connecticut high school students at the state capitol for an annual Youth Action Conference.
As the Hall continued to expand, the Board of Trustees began to seek new partnerships that would further the organization’s statewide mission. After considering several promising avenues, the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame formed a partnership with Southern Connecticut State University and, in November 2008, moved to its New Haven campus. This collaboration allows us to work closely with the university’s Women’s Studies Program and Women’s Center and also allows us to partner with many organizations in the greater New Haven area while maintaining our existing statewide relationships.
In August 2011, we launched a new Virtual Hall website to meet increasing demand for web-based, interactive, educational content and to make our resources available to more students, teachers, researchers, and others interested in our mission. As part of the new Virtual Hall, we created the Rose Garden, a way for visitors to share the stories of the important women in their lives, women whose stories might not otherwise be preserved. 2011 also saw the re-purposing of the Grasso Center to create a new college grant program for young women, the Ella T. Grasso Leadership in Action Grant Program.
The Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame has already achieved more than its founders might have imagined. Remaining true to our mission, we continue to honor Connecticut’s women and preserve their stories, educate the public about their achievements, and inspire future generations of women and girls. We continue to expand our Board of Trustees in an effort to incorporate women from around the state and from a variety of sectors, and we continue to induct Connecticut’s remarkable women, making their stories of struggle and achievement available to the public through our free educational programming.