Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1878 – 1951)

Kit Hepburn with her four oldest children

Katharine Martha Houghton, better known as Kit, graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1899 with an A.B. in history and political science and received a Masters in Art History from Radcliffe College. In 1904, she moved with her husband, Thomas Hepburn, to Hartford where he was beginning his medical career as an intern at Hartford Hospital. Dr. Hepburn practiced at Hartford Hospital for the next five decades and became Connecticut’s first urologist.

In 1907, the same year her daughter actress Katharine Hepburn was born, Kit became an active champion of women’s right to vote. With a few close friends, in 1913 she organized the Hartford Equal Franchise League, which grew to a membership of 20,000.  The efforts of Kit and many others brought about the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Kit was also an avid supporter of women’s right to birth control. To fully understand the birth control battle, we must begin with Anthony Comstock.  Mr. Comstock was born in rural Connecticut, served in the Civil War, and afterward moved to New York City. A devout Christian, Comstock was appalled by the prostitution and pornography in the city and began a crusade against this type of behavior. Certain that the availability of contraceptives alone promoted lust and lewdness, he targeted industries who advertised birth control devices.

In 1872, Comstock set off for Washington with an anti-obscenity bill that he had drafted, which included a ban on contraceptives. On March 3, 1873, Congress passed the new law, later known as the Comstock Act. The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit and made it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines. Connecticut made the law even stricter by making the act of using birth control illegal. Married couples could be arrested and subjected to a one-year prison sentence for using birth control in the privacy of their own bedrooms. This law made Connecticut the most restrictive state in the birth control battle. While law enforcement agents often looked the other way, Kit was upset the law was on the books and ridiculed it as the “police-under-the-bed” law.

In 1916, she joined the cause of the American Birth Control League and for many years served as its legislative chair speaking at rallies and before the U.S. Senate. This organization was the forerunner of today’s Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Kit and Thomas had six children. Kit died in 1951. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Comstock Act was unconstitutional as it infringed on one’s right to privacy.

Bryn Mawr. Katharine Houghton Hepburn, Class of 1899. Accessed at
http://www.brynmawr.edu/hepburn/about_1899.shtml on August 16, 2010.
Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Katharine Houghton Hepburn.  Accessed at
http://www.cwhf.org/browse_hall/hall/people/Hepburn-Katherine-Houghton.php on August 16, 2010.
Hopkins Medical News. For Katharine Hepburn, It All Began at Johns Hopkins. Accessed at
http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/hmn/F02/oncampus.html on August 16, 2010.
Public Broadcasting System. People & Events: Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity” Laws. Accessed at
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/e_comstock.html on August 16, 2010.
Wikipedia. Anthony Comstock. Accessed at
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Comstock on August 16, 2010.

Photo Credit: Katharine Houghton Hepburn, Public Domain