On a snowy Saturday in January, a group of Yale women alums gathered for a potluck lunch and lively conversation followed by a private viewing of primary source materials slated for display in an upcoming exhibit at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, “The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Connecticut.”
Our enthusiastic guide reminded us that the first call for suffrage took place in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY and that one of the early activists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had been radicalized by the abolitionist movement. However, it wasn’t until 1869 that Connecticut’s first suffrage group was formed — the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. Local chapters were soon formed around the state by women working tirelessly and out of the spotlight, insisting on their right to full citizenship.
We learned that the earliest voting rights for Connecticut women — limited to issues relating to education and domestic matters — were granted in 1893. Women’s ballots were cast separately from men’s, in special boxes labeled “For Women’s Ballots.”
We perused documents dated 1871 from the New Haven chapter of suffragists where progressive minded women gathered weekly to debate topics and radical ideas including the question of whether men and women should have equal pay. Should the sexes be educated alike? Was women’s oppression based on the Old Testament? Should the state’s divorce laws be more stringent?
We heard stories about the Beecher sisters — Harriet, Catherine and Isabella — and the family rift among them over suffrage as well as their minister brother’s sex scandal. Two of the sisters were active in the movement while the other actively opposed a woman’s right to vote. Imagine those family gatherings!
We saw photographs of Katharine ‘Kit’ Hepburn, progressive mother of six, including the famous actress with the same name. In the early years of the movement, Kit was instrumental in growing the local chapter of suffragettes (the CWSA) from 30 to 32,000 members. She later resigned declaring the Association “old-fashioned and supine” and went on to co-found the organization that would become Planned Parenthood, alongside Margaret Sanger.
We viewed a portrait of several women who turned their focus and energies to form Connecticut’s League of Women Voters, a logical outgrowth of the suffrage movement. The league began in 1920 as a “mighty political experiment” designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters, encouraging them to use their new power to help shape public policy.
We learned about Mary Townsend Seymour, an African American suffragette and activist (unionist) who helped form the Hartford chapter of the NAACP in 1917 and later ran for public office.
We learned that although the 19th Amendment was finally ratified by the US Congress and certified as law on August 26, 1920, the ability to vote did not always extend to women of color due to enduring widespread sexism and racism. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed — nearly a half century later — that all women were allowed to cast a ballot.
We looked at examples of women’s clothing from the time period and talked about other aspects of women’s lives that were slowly being “liberated.” For example, the stiff whale bone corsets worn during the Victorian age were giving way to European-influenced brassieres that didn’t require the same amount of human assistance to lace up while getting dressed. The bicycle provided another form of liberation — the ability for women to travel more freely — and the specific fashion designed to accommodate that new form of transportation.
Our visit to the archive was educational, entertaining and inspiring. So many “ordinary” women doing extraordinary things, fearless to try out new methods of organizing and employ untested strategies of communicating in order to secure their right to vote.
A personal note: This semester, I am teaching a first year seminar at Yale titled “On Activism: The Visual Representation of Protest and Disruption.” The students are eager to learn from historical and contemporary examples of activism so the opportunity to get a glimpse into the Connecticut suffrage movement was useful. I returned to my (now virtual) classroom with yet another example of sustained and leader-full activism to share with my students.
There is so much worthwhile work to be done. YaleWomen’s vision — Connecting women, Igniting ideas, Transforming the world — speaks to both this event and a continued call to action.
— Pamela Hovland '93 MFA, Senior Critic in Design, Yale School of Art
(Photo credit for all photos: Pamela Hovland)