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Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn

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Subject: Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame, Katharine Hepburn, American birth control activists, Clarice McLean, Hannah Bunce Watson
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Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn
Born Katharine Martha Houghton
(1878-02-02)February 2, 1878
Buffalo, New York, USA
Died March 17, 1951(1951-03-17) (aged 73)
West Hartford, Connecticut, USA
Occupation Activist
Religion None
Spouse(s) Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn
Children Tom Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn
Marion Hepburn
Margaret Hepburn
Richard Hepburn
Robert Hepburn

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn (February 2, 1878 – March 17, 1951) was an Planned Parenthood.[2] She was the mother of Academy Award winning actress Katharine Hepburn.

Early life

Katharine Martha Houghton was born in Buffalo, New York on February 2, 1878 to Caroline Garlinghouse and Alfred Augustus Houghton, a member of the Houghton family of Corning Incorporated glass works. She was named in part after her maternal grandmother, Martha Ann Spaulding Garlinghouse. Katharine had two younger sisters, Edith (1879–1948) and Marion (1882–1968). When not in Buffalo, she and her family spent time at their property in the Athol Springs area of Hamburg, New York and in Corning, New York, the seat of the family business. In contrast to the conservative views of the Episcopal Houghton family, Caroline and Alfred were progressive freethinkers. Thus, Houghton and her sisters were raised in a household that championed women's education and the ideas of the agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll.[3]

In 1892, Alfred Houghton committed suicide, leaving Caroline to raise their three children. Not long after, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Before her death in 1894, she inculcated her daughters, especially Katharine as the eldest, with the importance of a college education.

In her will, Caroline Houghton did not name a legal guardian for her daughters, preferring that they be independent to pursue their own aspirations. After her death the girls' education remained a point of contention between the sisters and their uncle, Amory Houghton, Jr. (1837–1909), the family patriarch and president of Corning Glass. While Amory believed young women belonged in finishing school, Katharine had absorbed her mother's insistence on a college education. Despite consistent opposition from the Houghton family, she was able to realize the promise she had made to her mother; Katharine Houghton graduated from Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr College in 1899, with an A.B. in history and political science.[4] She earned her master's degree in chemistry and physics the following year, although biographer Barbara Leaming claims Houghton's degree was in art history.[5] She then briefly attended Boston's Radcliffe College.[6][7] After completing preparatory studies at Baldwin School, her sisters, Edith and Marion, received degrees from Bryn Mawr in 1901 and 1906 respectively.[8]

Hepburn with her six children, 1921

Marriage and family

Houghton met Thomas N. Hepburn (1879–1962), a medical student at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, around 1903. Houghton spent that academic year teaching at the city's Calvert School before marrying Hepburn on June 6, 1904. Katharine Houghton and Thomas Hepburn had six children over the course of the following 16 years:[9]

  • Thomas Houghton “Tom” Hepburn (1905–1921)
  • Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1907–2003), actress
  • Richard Houghton “Dick” Hepburn (1911–2000), playwright
  • Dr. Robert Houghton “Bob” Hepburn (1913–2007), urologist
  • Marion Houghton Hepburn Grant (1918–1986), historian, author, and social activist
  • Margaret Houghton “Peg” Hepburn Perry (1920–2006), librarian and farmer

Following their marriage, the Hepburns moved to Hartford, CT, where Dr. Hepburn completed his internship and residency specializing in urology at Hartford Hospital.[10] He maintained a practice at the Hospital for approximately 50 years. The family took up their primary residence in West Hartford, CT about 1928. The Hepburns also owned a home in Fenwick, CT, where they summered.

During the early 1930s, Hepburn home-schooled her two younger daughters, Marion and Margaret. Marion considered her mother “a natural-born teacher” who was “never happier than when introducing us children to some new book or idea.”[11]

Social and reform work

Hepburn became interested in the suffrage movement and consequently co-founded the Hartford Equal Franchise League in 1909. The following year, this organization was absorbed into the Connecticut Woman's Suffrage Association and became a branch of the [16]

After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, members of the Democratic Party asked Hepburn to run for the US Senate. Though Dr. Hepburn supported his wife's work, he did not wish that she campaign for office. She subsequently declined the offer.[17]

Having concluded her suffrage work, Hepburn allied herself with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, a New York native who remembered Hepburn as "the Kathy Houghton of my Corning childhood."[18] Together they founded the American Birth Control League.[19] The League would eventually evolve into Planned Parenthood. Hepburn was elected chair of Sanger's National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control. In her autobiography, Sanger wrote of Hepburn:

“In her long public career she had learned great efficiency and […] she never let our witnesses run over their time. Just as we were swinging along briskly she invariably tugged at a coat and passed over a little slip – ‘time up in one minute.’”[20]

In 1934 Hepburn, Sanger, Congressman Walter Marcus Pierce, and others met with the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C. to rally on behalf of a bill which would allow doctors to disseminate contraceptive information. Among those speaking against birth control was popular Catholic radio priest Charles Coughlin. Coughlin's on-air ministry coupled with the fact that Hepburn's daughter Katharine had by that time established a film career in Hollywood, led newspapers to announce the event under the headline "Radio Father v. Movie Ma."[21] Coughlin condemned prophylactics as communistic,[22] and the House Committee eventually rejected the bill. Despite the defeat, TIME magazine afterward published an article noting the success of the Hepburn/Sanger birth control propaganda in yielding favorable local results for its cause.[23]

Throughout her career, Hepburn gave numerous speeches in cities around the East Coast, including speaking engagements at Carnegie Hall. Her words were not always popular; editorials written against her in the Hartford Courant could be vitriolic enough to cause her friends to suggest she take the newspaper to court for calumny.[24][25] At times, bricks or rocks were thrown through the windows of the Hepburn house.[26]

Personal interests

A Bernard Shaw, and golf. She did not care for movies, preferring instead the theatre. Her daughter Katharine mused that it was "curious that Fate gave her a movie-queen daughter."[29]

“Don’t regret your daily chores. They are what keep you from going insane”, was a personal quotation.[30] Family and friends familiarly referred to Hepburn as “Kit”.

Later years and legacy

Hepburn remained active in reform movements for the rest of her life, especially in the branches of women's health and birth control. She died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage on St. Patrick's Day, 1951, at the age of 73. Her ashes are buried in the Hepburn family plot at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.[31] In 1988, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America established the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Fund which provides emergency funding for the cause of reproductive rights.[32] The regional Southern New England chapter of Planned Parenthood also sponsors a fund, the Hepburn Potter Society, "named in memory of two lifelong advocates of reproductive freedom." The Society offers membership to those who make a financial contribution.[33] Hepburn was inducted into the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame in 1994, included in the field of "Reformers."[34] In 2006, her alma mater Bryn Mawr opened the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center in honor of Hepburn and her daughter, actress Katharine Hepburn, who graduated in 1928. The Center "inspires Bryn Mawr students and graduates to make a meaningful impact on the world."[35]

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn was portrayed by Frances Conroy in the 2004 film, The Aviator.

See also

Further reading

  • "American Birth Control League". 
  • "Backstage with Sanger and Hepburn" Newsletter article, Fall 2003 - Margaret Sanger Papers Project". 
  • "Corning Incorporated - Our Heritage". 
  • Dr. Thomas Hepburn & Son: A Father's Day Remembrance,' Stacey Stowe, Hartford Courant, June 16, 1996"'". 
  • "Edith Houghton Hooker, Maryland Women's Hall of Fame". 
  • "For Katharine Hepburn, It All Began at Johns Hopkins" article, Hopkins Medical News, Fall 2002". 
  • "The Hippest Shusher - Margaret 'Peg' Hepburn Perry" article, September 2007 - Oliver Walcott Library". 
  • Mystery in Suicide of Surgeon's Son' article, New York Times, April 4, 1921"'". The New York Times. April 4, 1921. 
  • "National Committee on Federal Legislation on Birth Control". 


  1. ^ "Bryn Mawr Women as Suffragists - the NAWSA Alumnae". 
  2. ^ Grant, Katharine Houghton (1989). Marion Hepburn Grant 1918-1986, A Biography. West Hartford, CT: Fenwick Productions. p. 103. 
  3. ^ Leaming, Barbara (1995). Katharine Hepburn, p. 54. Crown Publishers, New York. ISBN 0-517-59284-3.
  4. ^ Hepburn, Katharine (1991). Me. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 12.  
  5. ^ Leaming, p. 81.
  6. ^ Leaming, pp. 83, 86.
  7. ^ Andersen, Christopher (1988). The Young Kate. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc. pp. 64–65.  
  8. ^ "Bryn Mawr Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center - About the Houghton Hepburns". 
  9. ^ Hepburn, p. 27.
  10. ^ Grant, p. 102.
  11. ^ Grant, p. 54.
  12. ^ Women to See Wilson' New York Times, December 7, 1913. Accessed September 24, 2011"'". The New York Times. December 7, 1913. 
  13. ^ Dr. Tanner Gets Mitten,' New York Times, November 12, 1913. Accessed September 24, 2011"'". The New York Times. November 13, 1913. 
  14. ^ Mrs. Thos. Hepburn Joins Militants,' Meriden Morning Record, September 13, 1917"'". 
  15. ^ Paul, Alice (1976). Conversations with Alice Paul: Woman Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment, Suffragists Oral History Project, interview conducted by Amelia Fry. Online transcript, p. 330. Copyright 1976 and 2011, The Regents of the University of California"Conversations with Alice Paul". 
  16. ^ Leaming, p. 179.
  17. ^ Leaming, p. 188.
  18. ^ Sanger, Margaret (1938). Margaret Sanger: an autobiography, p. 188. W.W. Norton, New York.
  19. ^ Chesler, Ellen (1992). Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, p. 202. Simon and Schuster, New York. ISBN 0-671-60088-5.
  20. ^ Sanger, p. 419.
  21. ^ Leaming, p. 291.
  22. ^ Radio Priest Backs Birth Control Ban,'The Escanaba Daily Press, Michigan, January 19, 1934. Accessed August 26, 2011"'". 
  23. ^ Medicine: Birth Controllers on Parade,' TIME magazine, January 29, 1934. Accessed August 26, 2011"'". Time. January 29, 1934. 
  24. ^ Edwards, Anne (1989). Katharine Hepburn: a Remarkable Woman. New York: William Morrow & Co. p. 32.  
  25. ^ Andersen, p. 116.
  26. ^ Leaming, p. 191.
  27. ^ Robert Hepburn as quoted in Mann, p. 52. “Mother was thrilled when Lenin took over Russia. She essentially became a communist.”
  28. ^ Marion Hepburn Grant as quoted in Grant, p. 122 sq. “My Marxist mother…”
  29. ^ Hepburn, p. 51.
  30. ^ As quoted in Grant, p. 59.
  31. ^ "Find a Grave - Katharine Houghton Hepburn". 
  32. ^ "PPFA Margaret Sanger Award Winners - Katharine Hepburn". 
  33. ^ Focus" quarterly periodical, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, Summer 2010""". 
  34. ^ "Katharine Houghton Hepburn | Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame". Retrieved 2012-02-07. 
  35. ^ "Bryn Mawr Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center - Mission and History". 

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