TWO KATHARINES: The Childhood of Katharine Hepburn and the Shaping of an Icon

Today marks what would have been the 107th birthday of an incomparable legend. Katharine Hepburn, a persona so beloved and respected to have reduced hardened prop men to putty in her hands during her appearance on Dick Cavett in 1973, was a force to be reckoned with and everybody knew it. When Katharine Hepburn walked in the room, there was no question as to who was in charge. This was an individual who fought for what she wanted, demanded what she needed, and in the process singlehandedly redefined what it means to be a woman in Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn at the rehearsal for her appearance on Dick Cavett in 1973.

Hepburn famously said on an interview with Barbara Walters “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” Katharine Hepburn broke many molds during her lifetime, and defied societal expectations in a generation in which women were still expected to be subservient to men. And she didn’t do it alone.

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, the mother of Katharine Hepburn and a pioneer of women’s rights in Connecticut.

From her earliest childhood, Katharine Hepburn was taught to live the way she wanted to, and not give credence to what others might think. This attitude was instilled in her by her mother, the passionate suffragette and famed leader of Connecticut women’s rights groups Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn. Houghton Hepburn served as the president of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association and, after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, founded the American Birth Control League with fellow activist Margaret Sanger, the organization that later became Planned Parenthood.

In later life, the younger Katharine would remember her mother taking her along to suffrage rallies as a toddler, teaching her that the women there were doing all they could to fight for her future. Due to her mother’s work, the Hepburn family endured intense hostility from the neighbors–neighborhood children were often not allowed to play with the Hepburn children, and bricks were thrown through their windows on several occasions. But through it all, Mrs. Hepburn persevered, and passed on to her daughter the attitude that rights must be fought for and earned.

Katharine Hepburn with her mother and siblings.

Young Katharine never let go of the lessons of her childhood, and throughout her life fought many personal and professional battles, fighting hard and not backing down until she won. In her desire to be comfortable, she insisted on wearing pants almost exclusively, a practice seldom exercised in her generation. In her stalwart determination to not be restricted by what other people thought, she is widely credited with popularizing pants for women. In 1947, at the height of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist, Katharine Hepburn was one of the founding members of the Committee for the First Amendment, formed to protect and support the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Evoking her mother, and the women who fought for equal rights for women when she was a child, she delivered a speech written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo at the Hollywood Legion Stadium during a Progressive Party rally. Her own risk of being targeted by the Hollywood blacklist not holding her back, Katharine Hepburn once again stood up for what she believed in.

Her mother must have been proud.

Many thanks to Margaret over at The Great Katharine Hepburn for hosting this blogathon!

Advertisements

6 responses to “TWO KATHARINES: The Childhood of Katharine Hepburn and the Shaping of an Icon

  1. Thanks you sooo sososososo very much for drawing attention to this marvellous woman – especially so close to mother’s day! As much as I love katharine, Jr., Kit is my real hero. I hope you’ll enjoy my post about KH, Sr., if you haven’t seen it already: http://margaretperry.org/kit-hepburn-her-daughters-mother/
    Thank you very much for your contribution to the blogathon!

  2. My great pleasure! I really wanted to write about her because she had so much to do with who her daughter became. Thanks so much for hosting!

  3. I knew she had a strong-minded family, but had no idea her mother had worked with Margaret Sanger. Thanks for this interesting post. Such an inspiring story about what she did for those blacklisted– Leah

  4. Thanks Leah. She came from a family that operated way ahead of its time. Both her parents were extremely progressive politically, and taught her to think for herself. Great stock.

  5. janet stroud

    Right now my son is being taught by one of the most well-respected acting teachers in Hollywood, Joseph Pearlman, who was the student of a blacklisted actor back in the day, Jeff Corey. I am sure Corey and Hepburn were friends. I named my daughter after Katharine Hepburn, and she is just as independent, strong, and the same height as Hepburn. I have always felt a connection with The Great Kate, and it is almost through osmosis that she has touched our lives and millions like me.

  6. Very cool! Yes, she touched so many lives, in so many ways. She broke through many barriers and lived just the way she wanted to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s