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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 664

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To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified on this day in 1920, the grave series has a special guest post from Kathleen McIntyre, assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and associate director of the Honors Program at the University of Rhode Island. She is the author of Protestantism and State Formation in Post Revolutionary Oaxaca (University of New Mexico Press, 2019) and is presently working on a book project entitled “Protestant Women and Political Activism in Mexico, 1900-1955,” which explores the interrelated themes of educational reform, sports culture, temperance, suffrage, and transnational women’s rights groups. She also has the great misfortune of being my wife, which means she has been dragged to far too many cemeteries over the past few years. But this also means that while she wrote this post, the pictures of the graves are still mine, which fits the parameters of this series.

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These are the graves of Clara Hill, Helena Hill Weed, and Elsie Mary Hill.

The suffrage picketing daughters of Connecticut Republican Congressman Ebenezer J. Hill and Mary Eileen Mossman Hill, Clara Mossman Hill (1871-1955), Helena Charlotte Hill Weed (1875- 1958) and Elsie Mary Hill (1883-1970) spent decades organizing national suffrage protests and lobbying in Connecticut and in Washington, D.C. All born in Norwalk, Connecticut, where the family prided itself on its history stretching back to the Mayflower and included Revolutionary and Civil War heroes and the founder of the oldest Methodist congregation in Norwalk.  

All three sisters were members of the National Woman’s Party, the World Woman’s Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as New England genealogical societies. All three sisters graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where suffragist students and faculty attended clandestine meetings (often at night sitting around Matthew Vassar’s tombstone, possibly eating fudge) in the 1890s-1912  since the college president didn’t approve of women’s suffrage. The sisters split with Carrie Chapman Catt’s National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1913 and helped Alice Paul and Lucy Stone transition NAWSA’s  splinter group, the Congressional Union, into the National Woman’s Party by 1914. 

The U.S. election of 1920 was the culmination of a lifetime of political activism for the Hill sisters. Clara Hill never married. She graduated from Vassar in 1895,  served as her father’s secretary in Washington D.C. from 1900-1903, and worked as a Methodist missionary and educator in Italy (1906-1908), and a writer and organizer for the National Woman’s Party from 1913-1920 before becoming a missionary to Mexico from 1921-1931. She received a Masters in Education from Columbia in 1927. When Hill retired from the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society in 1931, she spent almost twenty-five years lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment once again with her sisters.  Her obituary noted her long dedication to the Equal Rights Amendment, her family’s history of suffrage activism, and her decades of service as a Methodist missionary. Hill was also lauded for her innovations in genealogy research which complemented her dedication to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Elsie M. Hill was the fiery protester who stood on top of automobiles while giving speeches and getting arrested with Helena Hill Weed and other ‘militants’ in Washington D.C. and Boston during the Wilson administration.  She spent almost two weeks in prison for her protest antics. She was a close friend and collaborator with NWP founder Alice Paul.  In 1921, Elsie M. Hill became the national council chairwoman for the NWP. She married Judge Albert Lévitt that same year but kept her last name; the New York Times, described her as a suffrage picketer and noted that “she was following the example of several other women—artists, authors, actresses, suffrage leaders and others.” Hill and Lévitt gave their daughter, Leslie Hill-Lévitt, born in 1924, a hyphenated last name.When she spoke on behalf of the NWP in 1923 to the Connecticut State Legislature about a proposed bill giving women more rights within marriages, she was introduced as Miss Elsie Hill; legislators insisted on calling her Mrs. Lévitt then as well as in 1932. Hill responded that the name on her checking account was still Elsie Hill and she would be called Miss Elsie Hill. Elsie Hill ran for her father’s old Congress seat in Connecticut in 1932 on the Independent Republican ticket. She wanted her name—Elsie Hill, not Elsie Lévitt—on the ballot. This caused quite a sensation; the state elections office originally said she couldn’t do that if she was married; the NWP used their attorney to say that she could.  Nonetheless, Hill endured sexist male congressmen who insisted on calling her Mrs. Lévitt instead of Miss Hill while she campaigned and lost the election.  Alice Paul used Elsie’s relationship with Lévitt to get inside information about which legal scholars could help craft the language for the ERA. While Lévitt supported suffrage—he once quipped that he married the NWP when he married Elsie— he was furious when he found out that Paul had violated his confidentiality and misrepresented Levitt’s comments about other judges and their thoughts on the ERA. (Amy E. Butler, Two Paths to Equality, 2002, pgs. 94-96.)  

Lévitt and Hill divorced in 1956 but they remained good friends; he is buried in the Hill family plot along with his second wife. Elsie Hill gained fame again in 1968 when she was featured in Life magazine as being aboard the first flight of American citizens into Moscow. Elsie Hill cherished having family and suffrage friends gather at the Hill vacation lake home, known affectionally as “The Rock Lot” in Redding, Connecticut. She almost lost the property to a private development project due to family financial problems in the late 1960s but a local conservation group purchased it and made it into a parkland, combining it with an additional land trust in the late 1970s making the area a popular hiking and nature preserve. Her daughter, Leslie Hill-Lévitt Latham, saved all of her mother’s suffrage memorabilia papers and her aunts’ papers to donate to Fairfield Historical Society, the Schlesinger Library, and Vassar College, among other research institutions.

After graduating from Vassar College, Helena Hill Weed studied at the Montana School of Mines and became a geologist, rare for a woman in her time. Helena Hill Weed was quoted in a 1917 Washington Post article in which the suffragist complains about the men who stopped by the protests to flirt with the women, causing Hill to “stamp her little foot in apparent vexation.” (Ellen Carol Dubois: Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote, 2020, pg. 218.) Helena was one of the first “Silent Sentinels”  arrested in front of the White House in 1917; images of her in jail were used by the NWP to gain sympathy for their cause. Like Elsie, Helena also divorced her own husband and continued to have positions of prestige in Pan American feminist organizing groups.  She became an activist for Haitian freedom from U.S. imperialism. In 1921, she served as the secretary to the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society

Clara Hill, Helena Hill Weed, and Elsie Mary Hill are buried in Norwalk Cemetery, Norwalk, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other suffragists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Wilhelmine Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett is buried in Honolulu and Katherine Devereux Blake is in Stratford, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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