The “Sweet Singer of Hartford,” for whom Sigourney Street was named, was one of the first American women to succeed at a literary career. A teacher, born in Norwich, Conn., Lydia Huntley moved to Hartford at the invitation of Daniel Wadsworth to open a school for the daughters of his friends. With her marriage to Charles Sigourney in 1819 came financial stability, allowing her to give up teaching and devote herself full-time to writing. At the request of her husband, Sigourney’s work was published anonymously. She used proceeds from her writing to contribute to charitable causes, including the temperance movement, peace societies, Greek war relief and the work of missionaries at home and abroad. In Traits of the Aborigines of America (1822), she turned Indian tales into blank verse urging conversion of Native Americans to Christianity.
When her husband's business began to fail, Sigourney sold poems and sketches to magazines. After the success of Letters to Young Ladies (1833), her most popular prose work, she abandoned anonymity despite her husband's objections. Within a year she had published eight other volumes, including Poems (1834), a collection of her verse that was reprinted three times. Her popularity was so great that rival publishers competed for her work. Death and piety were her favorite subjects; her rhyming of pious truisms had a wide appeal. In addition, her work inspired other young women to become poets.
Sigourney went abroad in 1840 where she was received by William Wordsworth, had tea with Thomas Carlyle and was presented at the court of Louis Philippe. Between 1840 and 1850, Sigourney published fourteen more collections of her poetry.
Her celebrity reached its height with the 1849 publication of her Illustrated Poems in a sumptuously bound, gilt-edged edition. She continued to write almost a volume a year until her death.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.