In her 1894 essay “The Kindergarten,” Virginia Thrall Smith insists that, “every community stands under a moral obligation to give every helpless child born within its border the best possible chance to grow into honesty and virtue.” She goes on to argue in favor of making quality education available to the youngest children. Her firm commitment to helping every child was a theme that resurfaced throughout her life. She was a devoted advocate for children’s education and an expansion of support services for women and children.
Virginia Thrall was born in 1836 in Bloomfield, Conn., and studied at the Suffield Institute, Catharine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary, and Mount Holyoke Seminary. At the age of 21, she married William B. Smith and the couple moved to Hartford. Here, Smith began her family and her career as an activist. The Smiths had six children, but three died from diphtheria in infancy. It was, perhaps, as a result of these personal tragedies that Smith became so passionate about fighting for the well-being of all children, whether rich or poor.
In 1876, Smith was appointed administrator of the Hartford City Mission, a position she approached with pride and diligence. In this role, she went above and beyond the expectations of the mission, particularly in terms of creating more educational opportunities. To make sure that all of the work could get done, Smith enlisted the help of devoted volunteers and, under her leadership, a free kindergarten was opened in 1881. Shortly thereafter, Smith and her volunteers pushed the Connecticut State Legislature to authorize kindergartens in public schools throughout the state.
During her time as Hartford’s City Missionary, Smith’s eyes were opened to the devastation that poverty could bring to a child’s life and she brought this knowledge to her new role as a member of the Connecticut State Board of Charities. In 1882, she began investigating the state’s poorhouses and, upon seeing thousands of children living in such grim conditions, the justice-oriented Smith knew something had to change. Though a law was passed in 1883 to give other means of shelter to abandoned children, the law only served to protect those who were otherwise considered healthy. This meant many other children, “the incurables,” were being neglected, and Smith continued to fight for their protection.
In 1892, Smith was forced to resign from her role with the Mission. Her friendships with unwed mothers led to rumors that she was involved in so-called “baby-farming.” The rumors were completely unsubstantiated and Smith’s supporters stayed by her side as she continued in the fight to protect every child and especially the sick or neglected. On June 15, 1898, after years of searching for permission from various towns throughout the state, Smith’s Home for the Incurables opened its doors in Newington, Conn. Today, this home still serves many children as the well-known Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Smith also helped to establish the Sister Dora Society, now operating as the Women’s Exchange, and the Children’s Aid Society, now called the Village for Families and Children, Inc.
Virginia Thrall Smith died in Hartford in 1903 and is buried in Hartford’s historic Cedar Hill Cemetery.
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.