Today in 1869, at a meeting in Hartford featuring civil rights luminaries Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe and a celebrity cast of the nationally famous Beecher family, Isabella Beecher Hooker and her husband John formally established the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association.
Isabella was born into the famous Beecher clan of Litchfield in 1822. She and two of her sisters were destined to leave their marks on American history as influential and nationally renowned 19th century reformers: Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ignited national conversations about the evils of slavery; Catherine Beecher established herself as a pioneer of women’s education; and Isabella Beecher Hooker became an outspoken advocate for woman’s suffrage and legal rights.
While nationally known celebrities such as Stanton and Garrison helped create a celebrity “buzz” for the organizing convention, an equally important draw was the presence of so many members of the celebrated Beecher family. In addition to Isabella and Harriet (Catherine was alone in the family in her opposition to woman suffrage), Harriet’s husband, the Rev. Calvin Stowe, spoke at the two-day meeting as did the women’s brother, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, then one of the nation’s most well known religious figures. Their collective appearance at Hartford to advocate for woman suffrage presented a sharp contrast to the opposition of another Hartford luminary, the Reverend Horace Bushnell, who had recently published an anti-suffrage book titled Women’s Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature.
During her 36-year tenure as leader of the CWSA, Isabella Hooker organized multiple high-profile conventions to draw attention and support to the cause of woman’s suffrage, and tirelessly petitioned both the Connecticut General Assembly and Congress to legally recognize women’s right to vote. Unlike many of her fellow suffragists, Isabella enjoyed the full support of her husband John, a Hartford lawyer who supported her efforts financially and helped her draft a bill which eventually became Connecticut’s first law to address the legal property rights of women. Even though Connecticut did not vote in favor of woman’s suffrage until the 19th Amendment had already passed in Congress, the CWSA was able to gain incremental victories towards woman’s suffrage at the state level, earning women the right to formally vote on local matters like school and library expenditures.
Even though Isabella Beecher Hooker passed away in 1907, 13 years before her lifelong dream of woman’s suffrage would become a reality, the foundation she laid with the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association proved to be strong: CWSA membership peaked at over 32,000 members in 1917, and the organization remained an influential political force until 1920, when it formally disbanded following the national ratification of the 19th Amendment, which finally gave women across America the right to vote.
Jonetta Badillo, “Isabella Beecher Hooker, Co-Founder of Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association,” New Haven Register
Jessica D. Jenkins, “The Long Road to Women’s Suffrage in Connecticut,” Connecticut Explored