Katharine Seymour Day was born into a Hartford family of prominence and prestige. Katharine was a grandniece of the world famous anti-slavery novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and granddaughter of the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker. Her father, attorney John C. Day, served as special secretary for Connecticut governor William Buckingham.
Katharine Day’s earliest years were spent in Hartford. As a child, she studied with private tutors and attended Hartford Public High School. In 1887, Day left Hartford High when her family moved to Europe. For the next seven years, the Days lived abroad, and Katharine and her sister Alice were introduced to Society at the royal courts of Germany and Great Britain. Perhaps more importantly to Day, however, was her introduction to modern art. In Paris she took classes at the Atelier Moderne, where she learned to paint in the Neo-Impressionist and Pointillist styles. When the Days returned to the United States to settle in New York City, Katharine studied under the famed artist William Merrit Chase, and took courses at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. The New York art world was not modern enough for Katharine’s tastes though, and she returned to Paris on her own to join the Academie Julien. The death of Katharine’s father, brought her once again to New York City to live with her mother, but her art education continued when she spent summers in the art colony of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
In 1915 and 1916, Katharine Day relocated to California, painting and taking summer courses at the University of California – Berkeley. At Berkeley she became convinced she needed a college education, and at age 47 she enrolled as a freshman at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because of her age she was accepted on a provisional basis. Majoring in the new field of psychology, she completed her undergraduate work and received a Master’s degree in only five years.
In 1924, the Harriet Beecher Stowe house went on the market, and Katharine Day decided to come home to Hartford. She purchased the house, planted colonial-revival style gardens, turned the garage into an artist’s studio and continued to paint, travel and study, receiving a graduate degree in history from Trinity College in 1936, when she was 66. The Hartford years also gave Day an opportunity to focus on important social activism.
Katharine Day’s interests and actions conformed to the ideals of the Progressive Movement, and like her famous Beecher ancestors before her, she often spoke out on issues that made her unpopular. She marched for women’s suffrage in New England, New York City, and London at a time when women were clubbed and arrested for participating. She helped organize the efforts of the New York Women’s Municipal League to end the politically corrupt rule of Tammany Hall. In Hartford, her activities focused on urban planning where she combined the need for modern amenities with a strong sense of historic preservation. She became a public health advocate by calling for an end to the open burning of garbage and refuse, and the construction of city incinerators. Supporting the beliefs that parks and gardens should be maintained for the health and benefit of the public, and that art education should be available to everyone, Katharine Day worked to restore the Corning Fountain in Bushnell Park, and helped create The Children’s Museum in West Hartford where all children could learn about art and history. Repeatedly, she spearheaded local preservation efforts, from relocating the Wadsworth Stable from Hartford to Lebanon to save it from destruction, to organizing the Friends of Hartford to prevent the Mark Twain House from being razed for development. And of course, she created and generously endowed the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, saving not only the home and many possessions of Harriet Beecher Stowe, but the building now known as the Day House as well as the papers of the extended Beecher, Stowe, Hooker and Day families.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.