When Martha Parsons was just 23 years old, she decided to leave her home, family, and friends to take a job with Landers, Frary & Clark Co. in New Britain, Conn. This represented a brave move for a young, single woman of her time but Parsons was strong and independent and welcomed what others might consider a challenge. In just twenty years, Parsons proved herself an asset to the Landers, Frary & Clark team and by 1912, was named executive secretary of the $2-million corporation, becoming the first female business executive in Connecticut’s history to earn her position on the basis of merit.
Parsons was born in Enfield, Conn., on December 6, 1869, the youngest of three daughters of John and Juliette Allen Parsons. She learned the importance of discipline and hard work at a very young age. When she was nearly eleven years old, Parsons’ father passed away and she and her sisters began working to help support the family. At Enfield High School, Parsons also demonstrated her strong work ethic. An outstanding student, she passed examinations in history, physical geography, arithmetic, and algebra, and earned certificates equal to today’s teaching certificate.
Upon leaving high school, Parsons studied stenography and spent the late 1880s and early 1890s as a stenographer for the Morgan Envelope Company in Springfield, Mass., earning between $10 and $12 per week. This was considered great money for a young woman, and, in 1893, when she was in the process of making her move to Landers, Frary & Clark, Morgan Envelope tried offering her an unheard of $16 per week to stay. But, Parsons took a chance and accepted a new stenography position in New Britain.
Parsons’ take-charge attitude so impressed her superiors at Landers, Frary & Clark that she was named Executive Secretary by 1912. Despite having earned her promotion, she was directed to sign her mail “M.A. Parsons” so that men would not know they were doing business with a woman. Parsons held this position until her retirement in 1919 at the age of 50. At this point, she moved back to her home in Enfield to live with her sisters. In 1928, Parsons hired Miss Ethel Rebecca Twining to live in the home and help with housekeeping. Parsons and Twining developed a strong friendship, which led Parsons to adopt Twining, and include her in her will. However, Twining passed before Parsons.
Throughout her life, Martha Parsons traveled extensively, invested her considerable wealth shrewdly, and remained active in civic and church matters. At the time of her death in 1965, she left her house to the historical society and set up a trust to maintain the estate. The home is now a museum open to the public and is a site on the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail.
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.