The extraordinary Smiths of Glastonbury were known for their early advocacy of education, abolition and women’s rights. Born into a prosperous, non-conformist family, the sisters challenged the prevailing attitudes toward women in the 19th century and became increasingly involved in the struggle for suffrage. Their home on Main Street, Kimberly Mansion, is a designated National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior and, though privately owned, is a stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. The sisters drew national attention in 1872 when the Town of Glastonbury attempted to raise taxes only on the Smith sisters and two other widows in town, and not on any male citizens. Julia and Abby refused to pay their taxes and took the town to court, ultimately winning their case.
HANNAH HADASSAH HICKOK SMITH
Hannah Hadassah Smith was the mother of the five famous sisters and was a well-educated woman, reading both French and Latin. She taught herself Italian so she could translate the classics. She was the force behind her family's commitment to the abolition movement. With a last name as commonplace as Smith, she and her clergyman husband, Zethania, decided to give their daughters fanciful first names. Like their father, the girls were theological non-conformists. They were also out-spoken abolitionists and suffragists. The whole family lived by a rigorous code of ethics.
HANCY ZEPHINA SMITH
Named for her mother and father, she chose to be called Zephina. Hancy was educated at Norwich Academy, Sarah Pierce's School in Litchfield, and by private tutors. She was considered musical, so a piano was purchased for her in the early 1820s. During the abolition movement, she worked tirelessly to collect signatures on petitions calling for the end of slavery.
CYRINTHIA SACRETIA SMITH
A dedicated horticulturist, Cyrinthia patiently kept notes on plants she was growing and experimented with fruit grafts. She attended Sarah Pierce's School and furthered her education with private tutors and extensive reading.
LAURILLA ALEROYLA SMITH
Laurilla Smith was the family artist. She taught both art and French at Emma Willard's School in Troy, N.Y., and, apparently on commission, completed many pen and ink sketches of houses. She also taught at Catharine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary. A friend of the family recalled that Laurilla “possessed great powers of imitation and a wonderful memory which enabled her to repeat lectures or addresses verbatim and in every way imitate the speaker so exactly that, unless you saw the speaker, you might easily be deceived.”
JULIA EVELINA SMITH
Considered the most intellectual of the sisters, Julia could read French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. She taught French and Euclidean Geometry at Emma Willard's School for a brief period in the 1820s. In order to refute the predictions made by William Miller that the world would end in 1843 or 1844, Julia translated the Bible five times to discover where Miller had made an error in his calculations. She later published her version of the Bible to prove that women were intellectually capable of voting. She holds the distinction of being the only woman in history to have published her translation of the entire Bible from its original languages. She and her sister Abby later challenged the Town of Glastonbury, refusing to pay taxes on the premise that it was taxation without representation. Julia was the last surviving sister, and the only one to marry when, at the age of 87, she married Judge Amos Parker of New Haven.
ABBY HADASSAH SMITH
It fell to the youngest sister to be the family spokesperson for suffrage. When she was in her 70s, she began to give hard-hitting speeches on women's rights. Perhaps her most famous was delivered from a wagon drawn up outside the Glastonbury Town Hall. Denied the right to speak inside, she stalwartly mounted the wagon and addressed the milling crowd. When the town seized the sisters' cows for back taxes, and later seized land, it was Abby, along with Julia, who took the town to court. Her efforts won her nationwide praise from suffragists.
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.