Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
The history of the early Connecticut women’s movement is not complete without the story of Josephine Bennett (1880-1961). A militant suffragist, feminist, and labor pioneer, Bennett played a leading role in the federal passage of the Nineteenth Amendment which guaranteed voting rights for women. As an organizer, speaker, and prison inmate (five days in a D.C. jail), Bennett shed her family’s class privilege and became a model of tireless advocacy.
Bennett’s suffragist activity centered on moving Connecticut’s women’s movement “from philosophical to political work.” She placed special emphasis on recruiting working women and African Americans, as well as forging links with other social movements.
Her first public speaking engagement was at the State Capitol on April 5, 1911. She shared the stage with Dr. Anna Shaw, president of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Women’s suffrage had been an issue since 1867, when the first state women’s group formed, about 45 years earlier. It is clear that Josephine and her compatriots were determined to cross the finish line this time. While some of her colleagues were still in their teens (like Edna Purcell), Josephine did not start her political life until she was thirty years old.
In 1913 she organized the first suffrage group in West Hartford, spoke at the Killingly Grange, and in 1914, helped organize the massive suffrage parade of one thousand women through Hartford’s street, speaking from a corner at Main and Pratt Streets.
She lectured on suffrage and feminism throughout the country and Europe, and was frequently considered by the press to be a “brilliant orator.” She lectured in Berlin, Germany on feminism in the United States.
In Washington DC at a congressional committee, she spoke against the NWSA’s proposal, called the Shafroth amendment. Josephine argued that the original bill, the Susan B. Anthony bill, which would require three-quarters of the states to ratify, which then “will force the the remaining one-fourth into line.” Shaforth would require all states to reach a threshold vote before suffrage was law. This became one of the earliest strategic disagreements between the NWSA and what was to become the National Woman’s Party (NWP).
Bennett was greatly affected by the 1917 arrest in D.C. of Catherine Flanagan, a state woman angered by Wilson’s inaction on promises he had made regarding suffrage. That was when she and Katharine Houghton Hepburn quit the CWSA– they were both elected leaders of the group– and joined the NWP because of its strategic work and militance.
In 1919 she followed in Flanagan’s footsteps, burning a copy of Wilson’s speech and spending five days in jail on a hunger strike.
Bennett continued to hammer on Wilson. During a suffrage meeting at her mother’s home she declared that “it is an insult to the intelligence and self-respect of American women to expect them to accept his beautiful flowers of rhetoric, when they hunger for the bread which he has in his pocket.”
Bennett campaigned in Maryland in November, 1919, and returned exhausted after working on behalf of state legislative candidates who supported suffrage and would be prepared to vote for ratification of 19th amendment. By that time, nineteen states had voted to ratify. (Maryland rejected suffrage on 2/19/20, and only voted in favor in 1941). Connecticut did not vote to ratify until September 4, 1920, after Tennessee took the effort over the top by becoming the 36th state to ratify, one month earlier.
Josephine Bennett supported union organizing efforts by garment workers, telephone operators, machinists, typewriter factory strikers, and tobacco workers.
She also involved herself with the social and economic impact of trafficking in women. There were 12 brothels in the city, and many more outlet for women and men to meet, including restaurants and saloons. Mayor Edward Smith was under great pressure to control prostitution, and in fact closed all brothels in 1911.
Union organizer Rebecca Weiner argued that low wages , dangerous working conditions, and sexual harassment led to prostitution. “No working girl can ply her honest calling for less than $6 a week,” she wrote, “and be safe from the temptation and defilement to which she is exposed in the polluting atmosphere that environs her struggle for decent living.”
In February, 1913 Bennett spoke to telephone operators and saleswomen at a “home meeting,” explaining to them that in states where local suffrage had passed, the eight-hour day had also been achieved. That same month she spoke to workers at Brown Thomson and Co. on “suffrage from the viewpoint of the mother and child.”
Later she addressed 300 operators at their union organizing meeting on Central Row, urging women to “pull together or you will go down.”
In 1914 Bennett spoke on child labor in New York, citing children from 6 to 7 years of age who were working 14 years a day (in a state with the best child labor laws). Politicians decided that the canneries where they worked were not factories– they were located in sheds– so they did not come under legal protection. The CWSA later called for a federal child labor law.
After the United States entered the World War, Josephine was an outspoken critic of Capitalism’s role in the weapons industry. At one rally she said:
“Anyone who profits from war industries at the expense of the United States government is not a patriot but a profiteer. Those who participate in lynchings, mob violence, or petty persecutions are not patriots but ruffians. The true patriot will have interest in the welfare of workers in industries, the negro race, the foreign born, and children.”
Only two weeks later she was in the news again at a mass labor meeting on behalf of Tom Mooney, the California union activist and political prisoner who had been framed for a bombing incident and scheduled for execution.
Bennett’s most significant labor activity may have taken place during the 1919 garment workers strike at Union Place near the train station. On the first day of the strike, police protected scabs, roughed up strikers, and had the strikers arrested for violence.
Bennett got her brother George Day to defend them those arrested and she accompanied them to court. She later appeared at a large union support rally, where one speaker dubbed her Hartford’s “City Mother.”
Her first efforts at connecting U.S. women’s liberation to the broader world was in 1916 when she presided over a fundraising tour for Serbian victims of the World War.
Josephine Bennett’s efforts also energized the Friends of Irish Freedom and the Friends of Freedom for India, two anti-imperialist organizations struggling for independence from Great Britain. On Wall Street in New York she protested the U.S. food blockade against Russia.
The campaign to save an abused Pequot woman from execution in 1913 became a suffragist cause. Bessie Wakefield, 26, was on death row for conspiring to murder her husband, until a high-profile movement eventually assured her parole. The suffragists argued that since women did not have the franchise, and could neither sit on juries nor decide capital punishment laws, it was impossible for Wakefield to be given a fair trial.
In 1920, Bennett ran for Secretary of State on the Connecticut Farmer-Labor Party slate (an affiliate of the American Labor Party). She was also endorsed by the Socialist Party, and her name appeared on both lines.
With her husband Martin in 1921, Bennett and her family established the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. There, she explained, “ We teach the truth and we train workers to work in their own movements.” Their two daughters also lived, studied, and performed chores at the school.
Among Bennett’s closest co-workers were Katharine Houghton Hepburn and Mary Townsend Seymour. With Hepburn, she led the Connecticut Birth Control League (later Planned Parenthood). With Mary Townsend Seymour’s leadership, Bennett became a founding member of the state NAACP in 1917. The initial organizing meeting was held at Seymour’s home and was attended by WEB DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Mary White Ovington.
Bennett counted among her friends and associates Claude McKay, Margaret Sanger, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Ernest Hemingway. With sister suffragist Annie Porritt, she helped create the Travelers’ Aid Society at a time when an increasing number of women began taking coaches and trains alone. She financially supported her friend Agnes Smedley, the radical journalist and novelist, who aided Indian and Chinese insurgents during their civil wars. Bennett was “intersectional” well before the term was invented.
Thanks to Richard Goldberg for proofreading comments.