Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Fighting for Equality - Abby Hadassah Smith (1797-1878) & Julia Evelina Smith, (1792-1886)

Born today in 1797, Abby Hadassah Smith (1797-1878) & her sister Julia Evelina Smith, (1792-1886).  The sisters were American suffragists who relentlessly protested for their property & voting rights, drawing considerable national & international attention to their situation & their cause.
Julia Evelina Smith, left, and Abby Hadassah Smith.

The Smith sisters lived almost their entire lives at the Connecticut farm homestead where they were born. Abby & Julia were the youngest of 5 daughters born to noted intellectual scholars Zephaniah Hollister Smith & Hannah Hadassah Hickock. The couple emphasized the importance of learning, nonconformity, & imaginative thought to their children. Educated at Emma Willard’s Seminary in Troy, New York, Julia Smith was known to have kept a diary in both French & Latin. She also translated her own version of the Bible from original Greek, Hebrew, & Latin sources, which she published in 1876. The sisters were active in temperance work & local charities, and reflecting the influences of their parents, they were notably independent in judgment & action.
A painting of Kimberly Mansion, the home of the Smith Sisters, located at 1625 Main St. in Glastonbury. The painting by Laurilla Smith, the sister of Julia & Abby Smith.

Totally against slavery in America, the Smith sisters invited William Lloyd Garrison to give abolitionist speeches from a tree stump in their front yard, when he was denied access to Hartford pulpits. The sisters also widely distributed the anti-slavery Charter Oak newspaper throughout Glastonbury. Their mother, who had authored one of the earliest anti-slavery petitions presented to Congress by John Quincy Adams, fully supported her daughters' abolitionist actions. 

Once slavery had been abolished in the United States, the Smith sisters focused their attentions on women’s suffrage. Before they could concentrate much energy on that movement; however, Julia & Abby, at the ages of 81 & 76, found themselves waging a personal battle against sexual inequality after inheriting the single most valuable piece of property in Glastonbury—their home, known as Kimberly Mansion.  

By 1869, Abby  & Julia were the only surviving members of the family. In November 1873, the Glastonbury tax collector informed the sisters that their recently reassessed property had raised $100 in value. Two widows in the town also had their property reassessed, but none of their male neighbors’ property values had risen.  The sisters immediately became indignant at what they perceived to be a grave injustice. Being women, they were politically powerless, since they lacked the right to vote. Despite this, Abby quickly composed a speech to present before the Glastonbury town meeting. In this speech, Abby declared:

"The motto of our government is ‘proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land,’ and here, where liberty is so highly extolled and glorified by every man in it, one-half of the inhabitants are not put under her laws, but are ruled over by the other half, who can take all they possess. How is liberty pleased with such worship?. . . All we ask of the town is not to rule over them as they rule over us, but to be on an equality with them."

The male voters of Glastonbury ignored Abby’s speech, so the sisters decided they would not pay taxes to the city, until they gained equal representation in government. The Glastonbury tax collector responded by seizing 7 of the sister’s cows for auction, 4 of which Abby & Julia bought back.  The sister thereafter refused to pay taxes, unless they were granted the right to vote in town meetings.

First to recognize the national importance of the sisters’ plight, the editor of The Republican, a newspaper published in Springfield, Massachusetts, wrote, “Abby Smith and her sister as truly stand for the American principle as did the citizens who ripped open the tea chests in Boston Harbor, or the farmers who leveled their muskets at Concord.” Without the sisters’ knowledge or permission, he reprinted Abby’s entire speech & set up a defense fund in her name. Soon, newspapers across the country began to reprint their story. A Harper’s Weekly author referred to Abby as “Samuel Adams redivivus.” Their cows became so famous that flowers made from their tail hair with ribbons reading “Taxation without Representation” were sold at a Chicago bazaar.
 Photo of the home of the Smith sisters at 1625 Main St. in Glastonbury

At a 2nd town meeting in April, Abby was refused permission to speak, whereupon she mounted a wagon outside & delivered her protest to the crowd. In June, authorities seized 15 acres of the Smiths’ pastureland, valued at $2,000, for delinquent taxes amounting to about $50. The sale of the land was conducted irregularly, however, & after a protracted suit, during the course of which the sisters had almost to study law themselves, they succeeded in having it set aside. Their cows, 4 of which they had been able to buy back, were twice more taken for taxes & soon became a cause célèbre throughout the country & even abroad as newspapers spread the story. 

Published versions of Abby’s speeches, along with witty  & effective letters by both sisters to various newspapers, brought them considerable prominence. In 1877, Julia edited & published an account of the events, Abby Smith & Her Cows, with a Report of the Law Case Decided Contrary to Law. Both sisters spoke at numerous suffrage meetings & also testified before state & federal legislative committees concerning woman suffrage. In 1879, a year after her sister’s death, Julia married & moved to Hartford.

Information in this posting comes from:
The Encyclopedia Britannica online
The Smith Sisters, Their Cows, and Women’s Rights in  Glastonbury written by Molly May