Katharine Hepburn’s mother was a prominent suffrage supporter and a birth control advocate

 
 

The majority of people is familiar with the life of the legendary actress Katharine Hepburn whose incredible acting career, spanning over six decades, made her a true Hollywood icon. She was nominated for dozens of Oscars and received four Academy Awards for Best Actress- a record for any performer. Her beauty, wit, eccentricity and independence have made her a role model for many generations of women.

However, fewer is the number of people familiar with the fact that her mother, Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, was also an inspiration and a role model for many women. Better known as “Kit,” she was a determined suffragist and a prominent leader in the fight for birth control.

From the trailer of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), based on the play by Tennessee Williams

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn was born on February 2nd, 1878, in Buffalo, New York, to Alfred Houghton and Caroline Garlinghouse. Her father, who was a businessman and son of the founders of the Corning Glass Works, committed suicide in 1892 and her mother died two years later due to stomach cancer, so teenage Katharine was sent to live with her mother’s cousin.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history in 1899 and a master’s degree in chemistry and physics in 1900. Kit started working as a teacher in Baltimore, where she met Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, whom she married in 1904. The couple had six children, the second of whom Katharine Houghton Hepburn, who would become the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn was raised to fight for equality, think independently and she did. As she said, “no topic was too controversial or advanced for the girls.” She attended many lectures on women’s rights and was especially interested in the woman suffrage movement.

Family portrait of Katharine M. Houghton Hepburn and her six children, early 1921. L to R: daughter Katharine, Marion, Robert, Thomas, and Richard. Hepburn is seated at center with daughter Margaret

She worked tirelessly for women’s rights focusing herself to the women’s suffrage movement. She became an active suffragette and was one of Connecticut’s foremost spokespersons for women’s rights and one of the most inspirational national suffrage leaders.

Women’s suffragists parade in New York City in 1917, carrying placards with signatures of more than a million women

In 1911 Katharine was appointed a president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association until she resigned in 1917 to join Alice Paul’s National Women’s Party. She served as a chairman of the Connecticut branch until August 18th, 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

Her life changed forever when she heard Margaret Sanger speaking on the need for birth control. They became very good friends and eventually founded the American Birth Control League that would later evolve into Planned Parenthood, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary family planning organization.

As written by the  New York Times,  in the early years of their crusade, the opposition was formidable; it included an outraged Roman Catholic establishment, a general public inhibited by post-Victorian prudery and Connecticut state obscenity laws that made it illegal to send any information or device that might be designed for the prevention of conception. It was even a crime for doctors to disseminate such information or tell anyone where it might be obtained.

A portrait of Katharine Houghton Hepburn, American suffragist and a birth control advocate

In the 1930s she worked with the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and regularly spoke for the liberalization of birth control laws and sex education.

Here is another story from us: Frank Sinatra’s mother provided illegal abortions for Catholic Italian women

Despite everything, Kit always managed to spend some time with her three boys and three girls. She was an inspiring mother and always supported her children’s decisions, encouraging them to think independently and to fight for a better future.