Kit Houghton Hepburn, Her Daughter’s Mother


“Mother with her real savvy of life. She adored [father]. She adored us. She was deep. She was witty. Some say I am like her. I hope so, I’d be so proud.” (Hepburn 27)

KHH iiAs much as I admire Katharine Hepburn the film actress, the real heroine of that family was her mother Kit. On the 106th anniversary of Katharine Hepburn’s birth (May 12, 1907), is only seems fitting to pay a Mother’s Day tribute to Mrs. Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn.

Mrs. Hepburn was involved in most major causes of the Progressive Reform Era, including woman suffrage, social hygiene, and birth control. She worked tirelessly for women’s rights in a way that both enabled and encouraged her oldest daughter to live a life of independence many women of the time could only dream of.

Katharine Martha Houghton was born in Corning, NY in February, 1878. Her father Alfred Houghton was the younger brother of the head of the famous Corning Glass Company, Amory Houghton. Kathy had one older half-sister, Mary, and two younger sisters, Edith and Marion. Unfortunately, a combination of weak nerves, pressure at work, and an overbearing bully of an older brother drove Alfred to suicide in 1892, leaving his wife Carrie Garlinghouse to raise their three girls alone. 

“My mother talked a lot about [Carrie Garlinghouse]: her beauty, her strength of character – her determination that her daughters get an education and live lives independent of the very dominating Amory Houghton Corning Glass group. Her credo: Go to college! Get an education!” (Hepburn 13)

KHH bmCarrie Houghton often attended lectures on women’s rights at the Women’s Union Coterie in Buffalo with friends, and she believed “no topic was too controversial or advanced for the girls” (Leaming 27). Although Carrie had desperately wanted to attend college as a young women, her father had disapproved of education for girls. As a mother, she threw herself into preparing her daughters for Bryn Mawr College, one of the “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges on the east coast. About a year before Kathy was to start college, Carrie contracted stomach cancer and tragically passed away at the age of 34, but not without communicating the importance of college to her eldest daughter: 

“Carrie’s message to Kathy was to allow nothing to distract the girls from the goal their mother had set. No matter what the executors might say, it was up to her to keep her sisters together and get them to Bryn Mawr. Kathy remembered her mother’s words a ‘a divine command.'” (Leaming 38)

The sixteen-year-old Katharine had to fight her relatives tooth and nail for several years, but she and Edith both managed to attend and graduate from the Bryn Mawr College of legendary president M. Carey Thomas. Both sisters continued to Johns Hopkins around the turn of the century, where they would meet their future husbands. Since the classes were seated alphabetically, Edith Houghton sat with Thomas Hepburn and Don Hooker. She married Hooker herself and let sister Kathy have Tom Hepburn.

KHH and Hep

Dr. and Mrs. Hepburn

A few years later, Kit Houghton Hepburn found herself married to a successful doctor, whom she loved, and a couple adorable children. Yet she still felt dissatisfied with her life. “But me, what of me, what of me? Is this all that I am here for? There must be something. I have a Bachelor’s degree, I have a Master’s degree” (Hepburn). She didn’t like the idea of simply playing nursemaid to the next generation. Then her husband suggested they attend a feminist lecture given by British suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst. The rest is history: 

“Women. Their problems. The vote. Prostitution. The white-slave traffic. Teenage pregnancy. Venereal disease. Huge public meetings. They discovered many of the problems on Hartford’s conscience.” (Hepburn 18)

Kit Hepburn was President of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association until she resigned in 1917 to join Alice Paul‘s more aggressive National Women’s Party. After winning the vote in 1920, Mrs. Hepburn turned her attentions to birth control, becoming a good friend and co-worker of Margaret Sanger. When Katharine Hepburn’s films started to become popular in the 1930s, Mrs. Hepburn worried that her controversial political activities would have a negative effect on her daughter’s movie work. However, Miss Hepburn encouraged her mother to carry on, stating “I detest the newspaper’s reference to her as Katharine Hepburn’s mother. My mother is important. I am not.” (Leaming 292)

                                                 Hep suffrage  Hep suffrage inset

Baby Katharine grew up marching in suffrage parades, blowing up “Votes for Women” balloons, participating in any number of athletic activities, and simply living the tomboy childhood her mother encouraged. Kit Hepburn had six children in fifteen years, three boys and three girls. With all her social and political activities, she still managed to make it home in time for tea with her family. Bedtime was also her special time with her children, when she enjoyed hearing about their day, reading them bedtime stories, and singing them to sleep. All six of her adoring children were proud of the work their mother was doing to make the world a better place. 

“Don’t give in. Fight for your future. Independence is the only solution. Women are as good as men. Onward! You don’t have too much money, but you do have independent spirits. Knowledge! Education! Don’t give in! Make your own trail. Don’t moan. Don’t complain. Think positively.” (Hepburn 14)

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Family portrait (from left): Katharine, Marion, Bob, mother holding Peggy, Tom (standing), Dick


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