Wilton ‘I Voted’ sticker project celebrates CT suffragists

WILTON — Mary Emma Townsend Seymour, Elsie Hill, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Josephine Day Bennet, and Anna Louise James are names that may not be well known around the state, but they likely will be by the end of Election Day.

The women were all active in the suffrage movement of the early 20th century in Connecticut and are being celebrated on stickers that say “They Voted, I Voted” to be given out to those voters in Tuesday’s election.

These stickers are an outgrowth of a project conceived by Wilton resident Pamela Hovland, who created a series of six stickers commemorating Wilton suffragists for the Aug. 11 primary. The idea germinated at a meeting organized earlier this year by Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice.

“We were glad we could come together as a community to recognize this important anniversary,” Vanderslice said in a statement. “We were very excited to learn the ‘I Voted’ sticker project gained traction locally and has now grown into a statewide initiative. It’s wonderful that we can both celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and learn more about the role the women of Wilton and other CT communities played in it.”

The stickers include a portrait of each of the women, a tribute to other women who fought for the right to vote, and one of the movement’s slogans.

Hovland worked with Julie Hughes, of Newtown, who works in Wilton Library’s history room, and Peggy Reeves, a member of the Wilton League of Women Voters who recently retired as the state’s election director, and now works as a consultant for the secretary of the state’s office.

“We felt there was a potential to go statewide,” Hovland said last week. “Very early on in the process we wanted to include women of color. They were up against all sorts of additional barriers.”

Hovland and Hughes hit a wall in Wilton. The women in that Wilton series were all white because there is no record of women of color in the town in 1920. The state was a different story.

“At the state level, it was easy to find women,” Hughes said. “For one thing, the Connecticut suffragists made sure their names were remembered.”

There is a small plaque at the south corner of the Capitol that records the names of women who campaigned for the right to vote, but it does not include Black women.

“We wanted to be inclusive. We wanted to include them,” Hughes said.

Eventually they found their names and their stories, but there were no usable photos. Then, Hughes found a portrait painting of Mary Seymour on a blog called “The Shoeleather History Project.” The artist was Tetyana Holubyeva of Ukraine.

“I made the decision then to commission a series of portraits of all the women we chose in order to make them visually consistent and equal in their presentation,” Hovland said.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill was supportive of the Wilton project, and when Reeves presented the idea of stickers celebrating women across the state, she embraced it.

“She loved them and then got mad when they said they were going to be digital,” General Counsel Gabe Rosenberg said of Merrill, who then ordered 2 million actual stickers to be sent to registrars of voters in each of the state’s 169 municipalities.

“Voters love stickers,” Rosenberg said, but since they are handled at the local level, they are usually generic in design. Other states, he said, singling out Louisiana in particular, “do a really nice job with the stickers. ... This year they did a pelican, which is the state bird. We’ve always wanted to do something like that but the costs are hard to justify.”

Hovland did the design for this project at no cost to the state. Digital versions of the stickers may be downloaded at the secretary of the state website.

“They’re really, really cool and we’re thrilled,” Rosenberg said.

The women

At the state level, there were many women to choose from, but Hovland and Hughes wanted to stay away from women with a clear or documented history of racial discrimination or the eugenics movement.

Both Hovland and Hughes are particularly fond of Anna Louise James, of Old Saybrook. She was the daughter of a Virginia plantation slave, according to connecticuthistory.org. She was the first Black woman to graduate from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy in New York, thus becoming the first Black female pharmacist in Connecticut. She went to work in her brother-in-law’s pharmacy and took it over when he was called to serve in World War I in 1917. Known to the community as Miss James, she made improvements to the business — including installing a soda fountain — and operated the pharmacy until 1967.

According to Hughes, James was active in local politics as well as the suffrage movement and voted in 1921.

According to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, Mary Townsend Seymour lived a life fighting for civil rights. As a social activist, she was the first spokesperson for Hartford’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was established Oct. 9, 1917.

She helped Black soldiers’ families during WWI and with the Red Cross, worked with black women laborers in tobacco warehouses. With Josephine Bennett, they exposed the wage discrimination those women suffered.

Seymour was also concerned the 19th Amendment would not include Black women, and she worked to prevent that outcome. According to Hughes, Seymour wrote to the NAACP warning of suffragists who would not have the interests of Black women at heart, but said Bennett could be trusted.

Bennett is known as Hartford’s “city mother.” A supporter of workers’ rights, she helped start the local chapter of the American Labor Party in 1919. The party’s platform was broad, ranging from the elimination of unemployment to free tuition at colleges and universities, equal rights and a progressive income tax.

Working for passage of women’s right to vote, Bennett recruited both working women and Black women. She became a public speaker, lecturing on suffrage and feminism here and abroad, but she also held meetings in her home. Her outspokenness landed her in a Washington, D.C., jail in 1919, after she burned a copy of one of President Woodrow Wilson’s speeches. She spent five days there and went on a hunger strike.

Isabella Beecher Hooker, of Litchfield and Hartford, was involved in the suffrage movement in its early days. Married to John Hooker, a lawyer and abolitionist, she joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as a member of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1869.

She organized a convention of the association in 1871, and argued for women’s suffrage before the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. Senate. With her husband’s help, Hooker drafted a bill presented to the Connecticut Legislature that would give married women the same property rights as men. It passed in 1877. She died in 1907.

Elsie Hill, of Norwalk, met suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns while she was a teacher in Washington, D.C., and helped plan the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. She joined the National Women’s Party and, according to the Library of Congress, she was arrested for speaking in Lafayette Square in 1918, and was arrested again in Boston in 1919 for picketing Wilson’s return from Europe. She kept her own name following her marriage to Albert Levitt in 1921.

One of the stickers proclaims the suffrage slogan “Equality is the Scared law of Humanity,” coined by Egbert C. Jacobson, a graphic designer who supported the cause of his wife, suffragist Franc Delzell Jacobsen.

Remaining stickers honor all Connecticut women who fought for the cause.