Suffragists of the Month, May & June, 2017

Julia Evelina Smith, 1792 – 1886

Abby Hadassah Smith, 1797 – 1878

Julia Evelina Smith (May 27, 1792, left in photo) and her sister, Abby Hadassah Smith (June 1, 1797) were born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, fourth and fifth of five daughters. Their parents, Hannah and Zephaniah shared the unusual belief that education for girls should be equal to that of boys, and so the girls were thoroughly educated in literature, mathematics, history and languages. They also assisted their father in his law practice, reading his books, and studying his cases. None of the five married, except Julia who married later in life after all of her family had died. All helped support the family financially, taking turns teaching, helping with domestic and farm chores. They were a close-knit family, dependent upon each other for financial and social support.

But their father’s death in 1836 left the family of women bereft, not just of his love and support, but of his political influence. Although they were self-sufficient and paid taxes, they now had no political voice – they could hold no office, testify in no court of law, cast no vote in any election. They were subject to laws they had no voice in passing and were even refused the right to speak in public about these issues.

They spoke out anyway. In their younger years they had worked for abolition; after the Civil War they turned their energies to the battle for woman suffrage, never dreaming that such efforts would bring the attention of the entire nation to their barn door.

In 1869 they were asked to pay a highway tax of eighteen dollars twice, while the men of the town only had to pay once. Investigation revealed all property in the town owned by women had been double-taxed, but the women’s protestations fell on deaf ears. In 1872 they were again assessed a tax only charged against property owned by women, and again had their protests rebuffed. Finally, in 1873 they had had enough. Taxation without representation was just as tyrannical in 1873 as it had been in 1776. They would pay no taxes without a voice – without the vote. Julia was 81 years old. Abby was 76.

On New Years Day 1874, the tax collector visited their farm and confiscated seven of their eight prized Alderney milk cows for back taxes in the amount of $101.39. The sisters protested. The cows mooed plaintively as they were led out of the barn to be auctioned the next day. The neighbors lamented while the cows continued to moo and toss their regal heads in despair.

Fortunately, a sympathetic neighbor bought the cows and returned them to the Smiths. But the fight over the cows was just the beginning, and led to a protracted campaign by the Smith sisters that lasted the rest of their lives. While the dreaded tax collector continued to try to take their land, their furniture, their possessions, they continued to strike back. Soon the news of their defiance spread; sympathetic newspaper articles told readers about the “elderly ladies being persecuted for their principles.” Letters came from all over the country, offering both financial and moral support.

Abby wrote a friend: “Our letters from all parts of the Union would astonish anyone, we think, as well as ourselves…They tell us to go on, for we are standing on the right ground and they will aid us in every way.”

Suffrage leader Lucy Stone and others visited them, and they were invited to speak at conferences and meetings. While they eventually resumed paying taxes they never ceased their struggle for political equality, to have their voices heard. Abby died in 1878, Julia in 1886, and while neither lived to see suffrage achieved, the clamor they made in their small Connecticut town reverberated throughout the world.

Happy Birthday, Julia Evelina and Abby Hadassah Smith!

 

Leave a Reply