SOUTHINGTON — Conversations about Connecticut women who made history are often limited to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and Katherine Hepburn, the movie star.
Historian Diana Ross McCain of Middlefie has made it her mission to point out the women who, perhaps in a less obvious but no less important manner, impacted our state and our nation’s history.
McCain discussed her book “From the Kitchen to the Capitol: Four Feisty Connecticut Women” Saturday afternoon for about a dozen people at the Southington Historical Society Museum.
“When I read about (her work), I thought it was a wonderful way to honor Women’s History Month,” said Walter Grover, treasurer of the historical society.
Her four examples — Amelia Simmons, Abby and Julia Smith, and Ella Grasso — spanned different centuries and fields of endeavor.
Simmons (which may have been a pseudonym; the historical record of her is scanty) made her impact in the culinary field. In the wake of the American Revolution, thinkers of all stripes attempted to define the culture of the nascent country. For example, Noah Webster created a grammar book separate from its English antecedents.
“We needed to create our own culture,” said McCain, a former employee of the Connecticut Historical Society.
Simmons’ contribution was a cheaply printed 49 page pamphlet called “American Cookery,” the first effort at codifying recipes using ingredients indigenous to America. The book was printed in 1796. The Library of Congress included Simmons’ modest book as one of the 88 texts that shaped early America, McCain said.
McCain characterized Glastonbury residents Abby and Julia Smith as unlikely revolutionaries. The Smiths, a pair of highly educated and erudite elderly sisters, took issue in 1873 with an increase in their tax assessment. Unable to vote in town, the Smiths became angry with their disenfranchisement and refused to pay their taxes. When the tax collector seized their pet cows in lieu of payment, the media savvy sisters made sure the local media knew about it.
“They claimed it constituted taxation without representation. You’ve heard this before,” McCain said.
The Smiths correctly saw the situation as unfair and after hearing noted suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, began agitating for the vote. They lobbied their town council, the Connecticut General Assembly, and the United States Congress becoming internationally noteworthy in the process.
“They were in the trenches. They were taking the point and forging ahead,” McCain said.
McCain’s final remarks dealt with Ella Grasso, the state’s first female governor, who served from 1975 to 1980. The daughter of Italian immigrants, Grasso served in the state legislature and in the House of Representatives before winning two terms as governor.
Grasso was considered a popular and effective governor.
“It’s hard to comprehend that less than 50 years ago the idea of a woman governor was so controversial,” she said.
McCain argues that Grasso was an important figure, not only in Connecticut history, but in the nation’s as well. There had been other female governors, McCain said, but they were understood to be proxies for their husbands who for some particular reason could not serve.
“Grasso said she was the first lady governor who was not a governor’s first lady,” she said.
While McCain’s intent is to shed light on an underrepresented part of the state’s history, she has another agenda she’s trying to advance.
“It drives me nuts,” she said, “when people say that no one thinks that there is anything or anyone historical or interesting from Connecticut.”