Katherine Houghton Hepburn, 1878 – 1951
The name Katherine Hepburn usually calls to mind the famous red-headed actress, star of stage and screen, who defied contemporary mores and lived life on her own terms. But before her there was another head-strong, fiery-tempered Katherine Hepburn whose passion for equality improved the lives of, not just her actress-daughter, but countless other women as well.
Katherine Houghton, eldest of three daughters, was born February 2, 1878 into a life of comfort and financial stability. Her father, Alfred, was the son of the founder of Corning Glass Works in Corning, NY. Her mother Caroline Garlinghouse was a firm believer in equal education for both boys and girls and was determined her three daughters would go to college. But Katherine’s life of ease and privilege was short lived – her father died when she was fourteen, and her mother soon after, leaving the orphaned girls in the charge of their uncle Amory. Amory Houghton did not believe in advanced education for women, and in fact told the girls that such education could actually be harmful. Women’s brains were not strong enough to absorb complicated subjects, he explained. Advanced studies might even induce sterility and make them unmarriageable.
Katherine was determined to follow her own path. Her longing for education and independence caused frequent clashes with her disapproving Uncle, but fortunately her mother had made provisions before she died for all three girls to attend college. Over Uncle Amory’s objections she attended Bryn Mawr, graduation in 1900 with a degree in chemistry; she later attended graduate school at Radcliff. In 1904 she married physician Tom Hepburn and settled in Hartford, Connecticut to begin a family that would eventually welcome six children. But while she was devoted to her husband and children, she found family life stifling. Her longings for independence and personal fulfillment returned to haunt her.
When British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst held a rally in Hartford in 1909 Tom Hepburn, sensing his wife’s restlessness, encouraged her to attend. Katherine and over 200 other women listened to the famous suffragette tell of her struggles, and exhort them to fight for the most powerful political weapon of all – the right to vote. Pankhurst voiced some of Katherine’s strongest beliefs – that political equality and personal fulfillment were everyone’s right. Katherine’s life was changed forever. She and a friend organized the Hartford Equal Franchise League, and joined with other like-minded young women who believed the time for votes for women had finally come.
Her decision to fight for suffrage engendered controversy. The family was ostracized by friends and neighbors, warned that they would no longer be accepted in “polite society.” Tom’s career was threatened. But both Hepburns believed in standing up for what they believed, and raised their children to feel the same. As the children grew, Katherine brought them to rallies, marched with them in parades, and gave them the job of handing out balloons with the message “Votes for Women.” Katherine served as president of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association for four years; under her leadership the group grew to over 30,000 members. In 1917, frustrated by what she considered to be the lethargy of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, (NAWSA), she resigned to join the more militant National Woman’s Party, organized by Alice Paul.
After suffrage was finally achieved in 1920 Katherine began to work with Margaret Sanger for reproductive freedom. The irony of having a large family and espousing birth control was not lost on her. Katherine loved children. But she believed that every child should be a wanted child and every woman, rich or poor, should have the information and materials she needed to protect her family’s well-being. She worked to repeal stringent anti-birth control laws until her sudden death in 1951 while helping her daughter prepare for a play.
Katherine Houghton Hepburn, like many wealthy women, could have lived a life of luxury and ease. She chose instead to devote her life to helping others achieve equality and freedom. The actress Katherine Hepburn often credited her parents with her own courage to try new roles and break new ground as an actress. “We felt our parents were the best two people in the world,” she once told an interviewer, “and we were wildly lucky to be their children.”
Happy Birthday, Katherine Houghton Hepburn!