When Hartford native Dotha Bushnell Hillyer set forth to commemorate her father, the Reverend Horace Bushnell, for his years of faithful service to the capital city, she also strengthened her own legacy of patronage and commitment to the public. While instituting and financing the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall, Hillyer declared the theater a “center for the benefit of the public,” a nod to her father’s core values. Through her generous gift of the theater, her most well-known public work, the philanthropist and reformer continued her own tradition of giving.
Dotha Bushnell was the youngest daughter of Reverend Bushnell and his wife, Mary Apthorpe. She followed the path of community building that her father had paved with similar resolve and dedication. Horace Bushnell was admired in Hartford as a civic leader. In 1853, he declared his vision for Bushnell Park, which he saw as a means of unifying the community. He hoped that the park would speak to wholesome, feminine ideals. These values hinted at the social purity movement that was just beginning to enter the political landscape. By the 1890s, his daughter Dotha Bushnell became an active reformer in this movement by leading a fight for tenement reform and against prostitution.
Reverend Bushnell passed away in 1876. Shortly after, in 1879, Dotha Bushnell married Appleton Robbins Hillyer, a well-known philanthropist. With the help of her husband, Hillyer began to realize her dream of creating the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall, now commonly known as the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts or simply “The Bushnell.” Just as her father had built Bushnell Park around a dream of community unity, Hillyer sought to build a community venue where people could gather, celebrate, and feel inspired. In 1919, she decided to invest $800,000 in the project and set the money aside in an investment account. Soon after, however, ill health forced a delay in the project. The economic boom of the 1920s caused the money to more than triple to $2.5 million by the time construction began in 1928. The account was liquidated to pay for the project—and just in time, as the stock market crash of 1929 would have wiped out the fund! On January 13, 1930, the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall opened its doors. The venue’s success was staggering, but Hillyer was unable to join in the festivities due to her poor health. In fact, the woman who had made it all possible would only see the final product once before her death in 1932.
Since its grand opening, more than 25 million patrons have enjoyed Hartford’s beautiful and stately Bushnell Theater. Many talented performers have graced the Bushnell’s stage, including Katharine Hepburn, who performed Without Love in 1942. In addition to providing the city of Hartford with the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall, Hillyer and her husband were also the principal benefactors of the Science Museum in West Hartford and the original Hartford YMCA, which later became Hillyer College and then the University of Hartford. Ultimately, there was very little of the city’s fabric that remained untouched by the generous nature and civic mindedness of Dotha Bushnell Hillyer.
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.