Isabella Beecher Hooker

Isabella Beecher Hooker
"Every woman has rights as a human being first, which belong to no sex, and ought to be as freely conceded to her as if she were a man."
- Isabella Beecher Hooker

Induction Category:
Reformers

Born: 1822

Died: 1907

Inducted: 1994

Town: Litchfield and Hartford

Isabella Beecher Hooker’s long and respected career as a suffragist and reformer was launched in her husband’s law office in Farmington, Conn. At age 19, she had married John Hooker, a descendant of Hartford founder Thomas Hooker. She soon became a frequent visitor to his office while he waited for clients to bring him business. Upon reading William Blackstone with her husband, Isabella came across a passage that both horrified her and transformed her life: According to Blackstone, a married woman and man were as one person under the law. Thus, marriage actually suspended a woman’s legal standing and, in the eyes of the law, a wife had no rights independent of her husband. From that moment, Isabella Beecher Hooker dedicated her life’s work to the enfranchisement and empowerment of women.

Isabella Beecher was born into the prominent Beecher family in 1822, in Litchfield, Conn., the daughter of the Reverend Lyman Beecher and his second wife, Harriet Beecher. Her older half-sisters included the author Harriet Beecher Stowe and education reformer Catharine Beecher. At the age of 15, Isabella was sent for schooling to Catharine’s Hartford Female Seminary, where she met John Hooker, whom she married in 1841. They moved to Nook Farm, Hartford’s 19th-century literary colony, after the birth of two daughters and a son.

Beecher Hooker became involved in the cause of women’s suffrage, and through her work, was introduced to numerous activists including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1869, she founded the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and served as its director for 36 years. Two years later, she organized, at her own expense, a suffrage convention in Washington, D.C. “for the purpose of calling the attention of Congress to the fact that women were already citizens of the United States under the Constitution, interpreted by the Declaration of Independence, and only needed recognition from that body to become voters.” In addition to lobbying Congress, she also assumed a leading role in planning women’s rights conventions throughout Connecticut, and fought for a married women’s property bill, which she introduced to the state Legislature for seven years until its passage in 1877.

Isabella Beecher Hooker became involved in spiritualism in her later years and a family scandal severed ties with many of her siblings, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nevertheless, she continued her efforts on behalf of women’s rights and suffrage until her death in 1907, and was buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.


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.