In 1905 at the age of 83, Isabella Beecher Hooker wrote an autobiographical essay for Connecticut Magazine, in which she included a quote from John Greenleaf Whittier:
"Others shall sing the song, others shall right the wrong, Finish what I begin, and all I fail of – win."
On a recent Friday night, I sat in a darkened Connecticut Farm Bureau meeting room in Windsor to watch the 2004 HBO film, "Iron Jawed Angels," a stylized version of the struggle by Alice Paul and others for the right for women to vote.
We forget just how hard was the struggle to get the vote, said Debbi Tanner, chairwoman of the bureau's women's committee that hosted the movie.
(We forget, as well, that Paul's Equal Rights Amendment has been languishing for years for the lack of ratification by three more states, but that's another story.)
"Iron Jawed" is Hollywood-pretty, and includes entertaining inaccuracies such as a superfluous love interest, because Paul's man-less story was not sufficiently fascinating, I suppose. But give the flick this: It portrays one of America's ugly, overlooked chapters, that of female activists being tortured and force-fed while in prison on trumped-up charges. It was newspapers' accounts of those brutal acts that finally unlocked the wheels of Washington to turn them toward justice and the enfranchisement of women.
"Enfranchisement" sounds quaint now, and suffragettes — a diminutive term — are little more to us than those solemn-faced women in odd hats and sashes, holding embroidered signs.
But the women were real, and I wonder if we'll ever know the reality of their generations-long disenfranchisement. What did we miss, by dismissing so many for so long?
The youngest daughter of a family that included half-sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hooker was 19 when she married a young law clerk, himself a descendant of one of Hartford's founders. Marriage made her nervous, though she reassured her husband that he would not have to remind her of her God-ordained womanly duties.
John Hooker did not scare easily, and worked alongside his wife for rights for women. In the 1870s, the two feminists, John and Isabella, lobbied for landmark women's property legislation, which passed in 1877.
But you won't hear Hooker's name alongside that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony, though she was friends with both. About the time Connecticut legislators made the right choice about women and property, Hooker picked the less-popular side in a public family scandal. In retaliation, her own family spread the rumor that she'd come unhinged, which must have hurt Hooker greatly.
That was a mark against the public woman, and so was this: Hooker talked to dead people, though testimony in a court case contesting her will said she followed her own heart first, not that of the dead people with whom she corresponded. Her neighbor (and one-time tenant) Samuel Clemens vowed once not to have her in his house again, but he relented. When the Hookers celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, big names and small turned out to fete them at their graceful Nook Farm home.
Hooker testified in Hartford, and in Washington. She wrote letters and newspaper and magazine articles. She organized conventions. She helped found and lead the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association, as well as a larger New England group. As she matured and saw the world for the broad stage that it is, her own Hartford stump must have seemed incredibly small.
Courant archives contain one letter where this mother of equal rights urges readers to go to a particular Northend nursery in Hartford for their late-season dahlias. "I have never before seen such exquisite shades of colors," she wrote.
If she could not be a player on the world's stage, at least she would brighten the scenery.
Two years after her Connecticut Magazine essay, Hooker died of complications from a stroke, and joined the generations of people who weren't seen as fit to cast a vote. You can have your pretty Hollywood endings. I'll take flesh-and-blood sheros. And yes: I will see you at the polls on Tuesday.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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