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Fairfield 375: Fairfield case an early landmark in struggle for women's rights

Published 11:42 am, Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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  • Although women did not get the vote until 1920 when an amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, suffragettes were campaigning for women's rights in the mid to late 19th century. The National Woman Suffrage Association  was founded in 1869. Photo: Contributed Photo / Fairfield Citizen

    Although women did not get the vote until 1920 when an amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, suffragettes were campaigning for women's rights in the mid to late 19th century. The National Woman Suffrage Association was founded in 1869.

    Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.

The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.

Fairfield emerged at the forefront of the early campaign to win equal rights for women when a local woman refused to give up her property and her sister Fairfielders came to her defense.

Decades before women were granted the right to vote, Sarah Sherwood of Fairfield was jailed for contempt after she refused to hand her property over to her husband. Sherwood had been a "spinster" for years, living on a comfortable income from the property she had inherited from her parents. When she finally married in 1858, her husband Jessup Sherwood demanded control of her property since a married woman's property was, by law, owned by her husband. Jessup Sherwood was able to get a court order to take the property away from his wife's control. Sarah, who refused to turn her property over to her husband, was imprisoned as a result.

Fairfield women were angered by the action. Members of the Young Ladies Educational Society stepped up to protest Sarah Sherwood's treatment. Something like a modern book club, the society met weekly to discuss books, sing and pray. But they took to the streets on Sarah's behalf, campaigning for the Connecticut General Assembly to have her released from jail.

Finally, on July 7, 1865, the Connecticut legislature declared Sarah Sherwood to be "sole, single and unmarried with as full right to her property as if she had remained sole, single and unmarried."

Another well-known Fairfield woman, Standard Oil heiress Annie B. Jennings, had a lot of influence in Fairfield, speaking up during the 1860s about establishing zoning policies, installing sewers and making major donations to the town that included its first high school and the property that became Jennings Beach. But Jennings did not believe that women should get the vote and was the chairwoman of the Fairfield Branch of the Connecticut League Opposed to Women's Suffrage, according to historian Thomas Farnham.

Despite the protests of Jennings and others, women were given the right to vote by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. From then on, Fairfield women took a direct role in town government. Anna Bulkley -- the first woman ever to hold public office in Fairfield -- was elected to the town's School Committee in 1922. Clara Flint, in the same year, took her husband's positions as Fairfield's town clerk and tax collector after he died.

Other women followed, entering into Fairfield politics as the years passed including the first female justice of the peace, the first female assistant prosecutor, and the first woman to be elected as a state senator. One of Fairfield's most famous female politicians of modern times was Jacquelyn C. Durrell. She was the first woman to chair the town's Board of Education, served as a state representative, and then as Fairfield's first female first selectman for five terms, from 1983-93.