Women We Celebrate

Katharine Houghton Hepburn

Katharine Houghton Hepburn was an activist, speaker, and leader in the suffrage and equal rights campaigns of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) as well as an advocate for women’s education and women’s rights more broadly. Hepburn was born in Corning, New York, and was the sister of suffragist Edith Houghton Hooker and the mother of actress Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies at Bryn Mawr College, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in history and political science in 1899 and then a Master of Arts in 1900 after further study in chemistry and physics.

Hepburn married physician Thomas Hepburn and moved to Connecticut where she raised six children and became an active leader in the suffrage movement. She led the Connecticut Suffrage Association for six years, and became involved in the campaigns of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) and its successor the National Woman’s Party. Hepburn joined the National Executive Committee of the NWP in November 1917, and was an organizer of the Connecticut branch.

On March 3, 1914, Hepburn and several others spoke in favor of the national suffrage amendment at a Congressional Union hearing before the Judiciary Committee. Hepburn later supported the National Woman’s Party’s picket campaign for suffrage, and in August 1918, sponsored nineteen-year-old Edna Purtell’s travel to Washington, DC so Purtell could protest with the NWP. Hepburn could not participate directly because she was pregnant with her sixth child. Throughout the suffrage campaign, Hepburn worked with National Woman’s Party organizers to recruit Connecticut women to work for national suffrage and the campaigns of the NWP.

In December 1917, Hepburn served as presiding officer at the mass meeting honoring the women arrested for picketing the White House. She introduced suffrage advocate Dudley Field Malone, and called for contributions to the suffrage “war chest.” On March 10, 1919, Hepburn greeted the NWP’s Prison Special envoys during their visit to Hartford, Connecticut. Hepburn opened the outdoor meeting on the steps of city hall and introduced the envoys as speakers. In her opening remarks, Hepburn said of the women of the National Woman’s Party:

“They have a vision of what democracy means. They know that no country can honestly boast of its democracy while it disfranchises twenty million women. They have the intelligence to consider just what the position of women is in this country that calls itself democratic, and they have the spirit to protest. Men, you ought to glory in their clearness of vision and their courage. Men have everything to gain and nothing to lose by women’s becoming self respecting and fit to be the real helpmates of men.” (The Suffragist, March 29, 1919).

Hepburn’s interests also included women’s access to birth control, and she worked alongside Margaret Sanger to further this cause. She was also an education advocate and a member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, the precursor of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

In her obituary in the NWP’s Equal Rights newspaper, Hepburn was acknowledged as an influential speaker at many Congressional hearings for the Equal Rights Amendment. The article also highlighted Hepburn’s passionate dedication to equal rights throughout her life, recalling: “When her children were small, she sometimes brought them with her to Washington, when she was storming congress in [sic] behalf of the cause” (Equal Rights, May-June, 1951). Hepburn died on March 17, 1951.