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 served as president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association before joining the National Woman's Party. Alongside Margaret Sanger, Hepburn co-founded the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. She was the mother of Academy Award winning actress Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine Martha Houghton was born on February 2, 1878 in Buffalo, New York 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.
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. 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. She then briefly attended Boston's Radcliffe College. After completing preparatory studies at Baldwin School, her sisters, Edith and Marion, received degrees 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, 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:
- 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. 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.”
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 National American Woman Suffrage Association. As president of the CWSA, Hepburn represented the state of Connecticut as part of a 1913 deputation that met with President Woodrow Wilson to "seek some expression of the President of his attitude on the woman suffrage question." Earlier that year, Hepburn had played host to famed British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, who was visiting Hartford on a speaking tour. In 1917, Mrs. Hepburn resigned as CWSA president, declaring the Association to be "old-fashioned and supine." She instead joined Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, a suffrage organization with a more aggressive reputation. In an oral history interview, Paul recalled Hepburn as "the unquestioned leader of the suffragists . . . in Connecticut." She was elected to serve as legislative chairman of the organization's National Executive Committee.
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.
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." Together they founded the American Birth Control League. The League would eventually evolve into Planned Parenthood. Hepburn was elected chair of Sanger's National Committee on Federal Legislation for 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.’”
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." Coughlin condemned prophylactics as communistic, 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.
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. At times, bricks or rocks were thrown through the windows of the Hepburn house.
A socialist sympathizer, Hepburn was a Marxist. Aside from her work and family, she enjoyed political debate, current events, Russian history, the works of William Shakespeare and 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."
“Don’t regret your daily chores. They are what keep you from going insane”, was a personal quotation. 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. In 1988, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America established the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Fund which provides emergency funding for the cause of reproductive rights. 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. 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 daughter, actress Katharine Hepburn, who graduated in 1928. The Center "inspires Bryn Mawr students and graduates to make a meaningful impact on the world."
Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn was portrayed by Frances Conroy in the 2004 film, The Aviator.