Josephine Bennett, Hartford’s City Mother

The history of the early Connecticut women’s movement is not complete without the story of Josephine Bennett (1880-1961). A militant suffragist, feminist, anti-imperialist, 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. 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. Josephine Bennett and her compatriots were determined to cross the finish line this time.

In 1913 she travelled across Connecticut, organizing the first suffrage group in West Hartford and lecturing at the Killingly Grange. The next year she helped organize the massive suffrage parade of one thousand women through Hartford’s streets, speaking from an open air car on the corner at Main and Pratt Streets.

She lectured on suffrage and feminism throughout the country and Europe, and was considered by the press to be a “brilliant orator.” She lectured in Berlin, Germany on the topic of feminism in the United States.

At a 1914 congressional committee in Washington DC, Bennett  spoke against the NWSA’s suffrage proposal, known as the Shafroth amendment. Shaforth would require all states to reach a threshold vote before suffrage became law. Bennett argued for the original Susan B. Anthony bill, which required three-quarters of the states to ratify. Once approved, the movement could then “force the remaining one-fourth into line.”  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 Bennett and Katharine Houghton Hepburn quit the Connecticut affiliate of the NWSA (they had both been elected leaders of the group) and joined the NWP because of its strategic work and militance.

In 1919 Bennett followed in Flanagan’s footsteps, burning a copy of Wilson’s speech and spending five days in jail on a hunger strike. Her time in lockup was a crash course in the iniquities of the prison system.  Her celebrity amplified her first hand witness against inhumane treatment.

Bennett continued to hammer on Wilson. During a suffrage meeting at her mother’s home (also an active suffragist), 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 would vote for ratification of 19th amendment. By that time, nineteen states had voted to ratify.  Connecticut did not vote to ratify until September 4, 1920,  after three-quarters of the states needed for passage.

Josephine Bennett understood that women needed power not only at the ballot box but on the factory floor. She 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 twelve brothels in the Hartford at the time and many more outlets 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, for a while.

Josephine’s husband Martin Toscan Bennett was on the mayor’s reform committee which issued a report. They exposed the economic conditions that forced women into prostitution, and proposed that property owners who profited from the trade should be publicly linked to their buildings.

“No working girl can ply her honest calling for less than $6 a week,” a local union organizer 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 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 Company on “suffrage from the viewpoint of the mother and child.” Later she addressed 300 telephone operators at their union organizing meeting on Central Row, urging women to “pull together or you will go down.”

In 1914 Bennett spoke on the child labor situation in New York, citing children from 6 to 7 years of age who were working 14 years a day (in a state which boasted the most advanced child labor laws). Politicians decided that the canneries where they worked were not factories– they were located in sheds– and so did not come under legal protections. The CWSA later called for federal child labor law reform.

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.

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 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 the women’s cause to the broader world was in 1916 when she presided over a fundraising tour for Serbian victims of the World War. A short while later, on Wall Street in New York she protested the U.S. food blockade against Russia, “a black spot on the honor of our country.”

Bennett also aided the Friends of Irish Freedom and the Friends of Freedom for India, two anti-imperialist organizations struggling for independence from Great Britain. She told the local Padric Pearse branch of the Irish group: “This country has always been about the only one in the world that was safe for a political refugee. It is our duty to protest as loudly as we can to protect ourselves against this.  Both India and Ireland say ‘England, step out and let us settle our own troubles.”

The campaign in 1913 to save an abused Connecticut Pequot woman from execution became a suffragist cause. Bessie Wakefield, 26, was on death row for conspiring to murder her husband, until a high-profile women’s 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 Katherine and Tanya also lived, studied, and performed chores at the school. In 1923 the sisters were in the first graduation class.

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 Seymour’s leadership, Bennett became a founding member of the state NAACP in 1917. The initial organizing meeting was held at Seymour’s Hartford 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.

By linking disparate social and political movements of the period, Bennett was “intersectional” well before the term was invented.

Thanks to Richard Goldberg for proofreading comments.

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