Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn (February 2, 1878 – March 17, 1951) was an American feminist social reformer and a leader of the suffrage movement in the United States. Hepburn contributed to the 1913 foundation of the Hartford Equal Franchise League before serving as president of the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association. In 1917, she left her post as president and joined the more aggressive National Woman’s Party. Alongside Margaret Sanger, Hepburn also co-founded the organization that would become Planned Parenthood.
Katharine Martha Houghton was born on February 2, 1878 to Caroline Garlinghouse and Alfred Augustus Houghton, a member of the Houghton family of Corning Incorporated glass works. Houghton was probably born in Hamburg, New York, where her parents owned a farm. However, sources differ; some name Buffalo or Corning as her birthplace. Katharine had two younger sisters, Edith (1879–1948) and Marion (1882–1968). In contrast to the conservative views of the Episcopalian Houghton family, Caroline and Alfred were progressive freethinkers. Thus, Houghton and her sisters were raised in a household which championed women’s education and the ideas of the agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll.
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.
Fulfilling 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. 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. Houghton also studied briefly at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. Her sisters, Edith and Marion, graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1901 and 1906, respectively.
Marriage and family
Houghton met Thomas N. Hepburn (1879–1962), a medical student at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1903. They married on June 6, 1904 and had six children over the course of the following 16 years:
Hepburn with her six children, 1921
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 in the department of urology at Hartford Hospital. 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.
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 Women’s Suffrage Association. Hepburn served as president of the CWSA until 1917, when she left to join Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party. She was then elected to serve as legislative chairman of the organization’s National Executive Committee.
About this time, Hepburn allied herself with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Together they founded the American Birth Control League. The League would eventually evolve into Planned Parenthood. Hepburn joined Sanger’s National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control, and the two activists again collaborated during the 1930s while lobbying in Washington, D.C. for the legalization of contraceptives.
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.
A socialist sympathizer, Hepburn was a Marxist. Apart from her work and family, she enjoyed political debate, current events, Russian history, the works of George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, and golf.
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 on St. Patrick’s Day, 1951, of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 73. Her ashes are buried in the Hepburn family plot at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. Hepburn was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994, included in the field of “Reformers.” In 2006, her alma mater Bryn Mawr opened the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center in honor of Hepburn and her namesake daughter, actress Katharine Hepburn, who graduated in 1928. The Center “inspires Bryn Mawr students and graduates to make a meaningful impact on the world.”