Three years after Katharine Houghton Hepburn moved to Hartford with her husband, she attended a lecture given by the prominent British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The founder of the Women’s Franchise League, Pankhurst brought a message to Connecticut that justified the use of confrontational tactics to achieve women’s equality and suffrage. Inspired by Pankhurst’s call to action, Houghton Hepburn became a champion of women’s rights, suffrage and universal access to birth control.
Born in Corning, N.Y., Katharine Martha Houghton was an heiress to the Corning Glass fortune. Her parents, Alfred Augustus Houghton and Caroline Garlinghouse, were far more progressive than the rest of the Houghton family and raised their daughters to fight for equality. She was educated at Bryn Mawr College, where she received a B.A. in history and political science, and then at Radcliffe College where she received a Master’s in chemistry and physics. She married Dr. Thomas Hepburn and moved with him to Nook Farm in Hartford. The Hepburns had six children, including famed actress Katharine Hepburn. With a few close friends, Houghton Hepburn organized the Hartford Equal Franchise League in 1913 and the league quickly grew to a membership of 20,000. She later became president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and took part in suffragist pickets of the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Houghton Hepburn was asked to run for U.S. Senate, but declined the request.
Prior to and after ratification of the 19th Amendment, Houghton Hepburn dedicated her enormous talents and energies to the fight for access to birth control, the cause for which she is best known. In 1916, she joined the movement of her friend Margaret Sanger, founder and leader of the American Birth Control League, the forerunner of today’s Planned Parenthood, and for many years served as the League’s legislative chair. She was most prominent in the birth control movement in the 1930s, when she spoke at rallies and events. She appeared before a Congressional committee and several state legislatures, including Connecticut’s, where she advocated repeal of the state’s notorious anti-birth control laws, which she ridiculed as the “police under the bed law.” She argued that only the poor were prevented from receiving information about contraception.
Houghton Hepburn’s political activism and leadership in the birth control movement were instrumental in a decades-long struggle to give all women legal access to information and safe contraception. She died in 1951 in Bloomfield at the age of 73 and is buried in Hartford’s historic Cedar Hill Cemetery.
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.