This is the grave of Isabella Beecher Hooker.
Born in 1822 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Isabella Beecher came from the nation’s most prominent reformer family. Her father Lyman Beecher was the most important minister of the day. Her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which for as wretched a novel as it is remains, along with The Jungle (another terrible book) as the most important fiction ever written in this nation for how it impacted the politics of the day. Her sister Catharine Beecher effectively invented modern housework. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher followed their father into the ministry, being the most famous minister of his day. So yeah…it was lot for anyone to grow up around.
The young Isabella followed the family around as Lyman had his various ministers. Catharine was her older sister from a different mother and did much of the education of her younger half-sister. Isabella attended Western Female Institute, Catharine’s school in Cincinnati and then when that closed in the Panic of 1837, another of Catharine’s schools back in Connecticut.
Isabella married the lawyer John Hooker in 1841. They settled in Connecticut, bought a bunch of land, and became an important reformist family in the area. During the next twenty-five years though, Isabella, unlike most of her family, focused on just raising her children. So yeah, she was an abolitionist, as was her husband, but she was pretty much out of public life. That changed after the Civil War, when she became intensely involved in women’s suffrage. She was heavily invested in the idea of women as mothers and bringing that motherly position into politics. This was not universally believed in the women’s suffrage movement, but it was definitely a sizable part of its politics and core intellectual system. Hooker entered the movement tentatively. She issued an unsigned letter titled “A Mother’s Letter to a Daughter on Women Suffrage”, which expressed her beliefs about motherhood and politics. Well-received, she began to become more actively involved.
Within just a couple of years, by 1870, Hooker had become one of the most important suffragists in the nation. She helped found the New England Women Suffrage Association and then the Connecticut Women Association and Society for the Study of Political Science. This last organization seems to have the political science thing on it because Hooker was committed to the idea that the Constitution already provided for women’s suffrage and she also wanted other legal remedies to women’s oppression. Her husband was equally committed to this principle. They wrote a bill together for the Connecticut legislature to give married women property rights. It failed of course. But in 1877, Connecticut finally passed it. So that was a big victory for women of that state and Hooker deserves a ton of credit here.
Hooker went on big speaking tours about suffrage throughout the 1870s. She worked closely with the reformer and generally super fascinating Victoria Woodhull and they were the two women to address Congress about suffrage in 1871 after the Washington Convention on Suffrage that year. This was the first time Congress had agreed to hear out women on suffrage in the chamber. Of course the vast majority of Congress did not support suffrage, but it was a step in the right direction. Again, she already believed the Constitution granted women the right to vote. She believed that gaining a constitutional amendment was basically impossible so that it was a better strategy to argue the right already existed and Congress just needed to recognize it. She frequently spoke in Congress around this issue. In fact, when Susan B. Anthony was arrested to vote in 1872, Hooker was there too, as were other activists, and also tried to vote but she wasn’t allowed to do so. So it was only Anthony and that’s part of what she is known for today, but in fact the idea was to have lots of women vote at the same place and time.
One thing Hooker did have in her favor is that she wasn’t one of the feminists who believed that the vote was going to solve all problems. There was a simplistic sense of this among some of the suffrage activists. But Hooker knew this was not true and she therefore spent a lot of time fighting for other rights as well, such as the married women property law. She definitely however believed that women were more morally pure than men and thus would bring a new sense of purity into American politics, which to be fair, was pretty bloody unpure in the Gilded Age. Did the suffrage activists such as Hooker buy hook, line, and sinker into Victorian Era gender norms here? Of course they did, but this was their milieu and the values of the time. So they genuinely believed that having women in politics would change the entirety of political life, as opposed to the reality which is that women in politics can also mean Sarah Palin.
In any case, by the mid-1880s, Hooker was leading the feminist movement in new and interesting directions, such as the necessity of having female police officers. She argued that the cops were totally corrupted in the same way that the politicians were and that by reorganizing the police and having a female police superintendent, we could completely change how the cops operated. This was seen as a laughable argument at the time and many would see it that way today, but then given how hopelessly racist, corrupt, and awful the cops remain today, I mean, could it be any worse if Hooker’s ideas were taken seriously?
Being made fun of by sexists didn’t seem to bother Hooker much. She was a big enough deal that her tours were nationally reported. Her lectures were published and she was one of the biggest suffragists in the nation. It’s a bit odd to me that she isn’t better remembered today, but when it comes to any social movement, our historical memory tends to focus on three or four people, in this case mostly Stanton and Mott and Anthony and Paul. In any case, Hooker didn’t live to see suffrage through, but she did live to see progress in gaining support. Toward the end of her life, she naturally couldn’t travel as much as she once did, but she did get some senators to publicly endorse a suffrage proposal in 1893 and she appeared before the Connecticut legislature to push a suffrage bill every year through 1901.
In 1907, Hooker had a stroke and died soon after. She was 84 years old.
Isabella Beecher Hooker is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.
This was not purposely intended to be a July 4 post, but it sure seems like an appropriate one at a time when rights are being stripped from Americans left and right by the Opus Dei Court.
If you would like this series to visit other suffragists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ida B. Wells is in Chicago and Lucretia Mott is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.