Katharine Houghton Hepburn

Katharine Houghton Hepburn

Induction Category:
Reformers

Born: 1878

Died: 1951

Inducted: 1994

Town: Hartford

Three years after Katharine Houghton Hepburn moved to Hartford with her husband, she attended a lecture given by the prominent British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The founder of the Women’s Franchise League, Pankhurst brought a message to Connecticut that justified the use of confrontational tactics to achieve women’s equality and suffrage. Inspired by Pankhurst’s call to action, Houghton Hepburn became a champion of women’s rights, suffrage and universal access to birth control.

Born in Corning, N.Y., Katharine Martha Houghton was an heiress to the Corning Glass fortune. Her parents, Alfred Augustus Houghton and Caroline Garlinghouse, were far more progressive than the rest of the Houghton family and raised their daughters to fight for equality. She was educated at Bryn Mawr College, where she received a B.A. in history and political science, and then at Radcliffe College where she received a Master’s in chemistry and physics. She married Dr. Thomas Hepburn and moved with him to Nook Farm in Hartford. The Hepburns had six children, including famed actress Katharine Hepburn. With a few close friends, Houghton Hepburn organized the Hartford Equal Franchise League in 1913 and the league quickly grew to a membership of 20,000. She later became president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and took part in suffragist pickets of the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Houghton Hepburn was asked to run for U.S. Senate, but declined the request.

Prior to and after ratification of the 19th Amendment, Houghton Hepburn dedicated her enormous talents and energies to the fight for access to birth control, the cause for which she is best known. In 1916, she joined the movement of her friend Margaret Sanger, founder and leader of the American Birth Control League, the forerunner of today’s Planned Parenthood, and for many years served as the League’s legislative chair. She was most prominent in the birth control movement in the 1930s, when she spoke at rallies and events. She appeared before a Congressional committee and several state legislatures, including Connecticut’s, where she advocated repeal of the state’s notorious anti-birth control laws, which she ridiculed as the “police under the bed law.” She argued that only the poor were prevented from receiving information about contraception.

Houghton Hepburn’s political activism and leadership in the birth control movement were instrumental in a decades-long struggle to give all women legal access to information and safe contraception. She died in 1951 in Bloomfield at the age of 73 and is buried in Hartford’s historic Cedar Hill Cemetery.


During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War