Affectionately known as la madrina (the godmother) of the Hartford Puerto Rican community, Maria Clemencia Colón Sanchez served the city as advocate, listener and mentor and earned tremendous respect citywide. She advocated for bilingual education in public schools and served on the Hartford Board of Education. In 1988, she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Connecticut General Assembly.
In 1954, at the age of 28, Sanchez boldly left her parents, her five siblings, and her native home of Comerio, Puerto Rico, and came to Hartford, Conn. Though she only had an 8th-grade education, Sanchez was determined to create a better life for herself. In Hartford, Sanchez found a new family and the new life that she sought. When she arrived in Hartford, Sanchez found work where she could – including in the tobacco fields – to earn money for herself and her family back in Puerto Rico.
Eventually, she was able to open her own storefront, “Maria’s News Stand,” on Albany Avenue, which doubled as an office space for much of her political work. By the late 1950s, the Puerto Rican population in Hartford was sizeable, and members of the community felt their rights were not being respected, and their voices were not being heard. The storefront served as a home base for community members to congregate and give voice to their concerns. The social unrest continued to grow in the 1960s, and on August 10, 1969, the Comanchero riot erupted between the Puerto Rican and French Canadian communities. By this point, it was clear from the work done at her store that Sanchez could mobilize communities. Not only was she able to quiet some of the rioting, but the community leader also used the fight as an opportunity to bring city members together to discuss their worries. Finally, the voices of the Puerto Rican community were being heard.
As an activist, Sanchez founded the Puerto Rican Parade Committee in 1964 and co-founded La Casa de Puerto Rico, the Society of Legal Services, the Spanish-American Merchants Association, the Puerto Rican Businessmen Association, and the Community Renewal Team. Along with her extensive work in community activism, Sanchez is most closely associated with education reform, an issue about which she was extremely passionate. In 1971, along with Edna Negron Rosario, Sanchez led the fight for mandatory bilingual education in Hartford. She recognized the right of children with limited proficiency in English to be taught in their native language and took this right seriously. Though opponents feared that a bilingual school would compromise traditional American ideals and encourage complacency in Puerto Ricans who had not yet become comfortable speaking English, La Escuelita opened in 1972, becoming the first bilingual school in the state of Connecticut. The following year, Sanchez took her education reform efforts to the next level and ran for a seat on the Hartford Board of Education. She won and served on the Board for 16 years, taking on additional bilingual and bicultural education challenges during her tenure.
In 1988, Sanchez became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Connecticut General Assembly. She served in this position until her sudden death on November 25, 1989. To honor her memory and recognize her valuable contributions to Hartford’s Hispanic community, the Maria C. Sanchez Elementary School on Babcock Street was dedicated in September 1991. On October 14, 1993, Maria C. Sanchez was commemorated along with other distinguished Hartford citizens in the Hartford Public Library’s Plaza of Fame.
During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice
Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”
A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.
Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.
Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.
A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.
Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent. Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.
The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.