Suffragist, birth control activist
By Kelly Marino
Postdoctoral fellow, Binghamton University
Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn (“Kit”) was born in Buffalo, New York, on February 2, 1878, to Caroline Garlinghouse and Alfred Augustus Houghton. The Houghtons owned Corning Glass Works. Tragedy plagued the family. Alfred committed suicide in 1892, and Caroline died from stomach cancer in 1894. Relatives raised Hepburn and her two sisters, Edith and Marion. Katharine graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a bachelor’s degree in 1899. She earned a master’s from Radcliffe College one year later, fulfilling her mother’s wish for her to get a higher education. After finishing school, Hepburn traveled around Europe and later took a teaching job in Baltimore, Maryland, where she met Thomas N. Hepburn, a medical student at John Hopkins. The couple married in 1904, settled in West Hartford, Connecticut, and had six children: Thomas, Katharine, Richard, Robert, Marion, and Margaret.
Katharine became interested in woman suffrage after hearing a speech by British activist Emmeline Pankhurst in 1909. There she befriended Connecticut native and young socialite, Emily Miller Pierson. Viewing the state suffrage association as archaic, the two women formed the Hartford Equal Franchise League. In 1910, Hepburn and Pierson, along with other young campaigners, took over the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. Hepburn secured the presidency. Connecticut suffragists celebrated her executive and oratory skills. Hepburn linked the vote with other initiatives like moral reform. She emphasized how woman suffrage would help in the fight against the white slave trade and venereal disease. In 1917, Hepburn became one of the many state suffragists to exit the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association for the National Woman’s Party. She composed a long letter stressing that the National American Woman Suffrage Association was not doing enough for voting rights. Pregnancy prevented Hepburn from picketing the White House; however, she funded Connecticut activist Edna Mary Purtell’s trip to Washington in her place. The NWP appointed Hepburn as the National Executive Committee’s legislative chairman.
After suffrage had been won, Hepburn remained active in politics. She turned down a bid for the U.S. Senate; however, she was an enthusiastic birth control organizer. Hepburn helped form the American Birth Control League, the forerunner of Planned Parenthood, alongside childhood acquaintance, Margaret Sanger. Sanger selected her as chair of the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control. Hepburn also contributed to the Connecticut Birth Control League and an illegal Hartford birth control clinic in the 1930s. Her fight for reproductive rights laid the groundwork for the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. During the late 1930s, Hepburn pulled back from activism to focus on family. She died suddenly, on March 17, 1951, after a cerebral hemorrhage.
For more on Hepburn’s anti-prostitution campaigns, see Peter C. Baldwin, Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), and on her birth control campaigns, see David J. Garrow, Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (New York: Macmillan, 1994). Carole Nichols, Votes and More for Women: Suffrage and After in Connecticut (New York: Institute for Research in History, 1983) details her suffrage organizing, as do the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association Records at the Connecticut State Library. The papers of her daughter, actress Katharine Hepburn, are at the New York Public Library. The New Haven Museum houses the records of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut.