Close to 250 Wilton women have added their names to a letter that is being compared to the efforts of suffragists who lived in town a century ago. The 2022 letter, titled “From Wilton Women To Wilton Women,” asks for women to commit to voting to promote women’s rights and issues. It calls for women to cast ballots for candidates who “validate our equal status, shared values and the survival of our democracy… in the best interests of yourself and your sisters, daughters, mothers, girlfriends and granddaughters.”
The letter was published as a sponsored post in GOOD Morning Wilton on Tuesday, Nov. 1, and has gotten media attention elsewhere. The Wilton Historical Society has already asked to add the letter to its collections.
It was written by Wilton resident Pamela Hovland, who, after being asked to write a letter to the editor about candidates in this year’s election, teamed up with another Wilton resident, Jenn Wadehra, with the goal of creating a grassroots effort that would make a bigger impact and draw attention to the rollback in women’s rights caused by the repeal of Roe v. Wade in June.
“I was interested in finding a more inclusive and more participatory form. I also wondered if a collaborative effort would have more impact in our community, especially if the message appealed to women of all ages and political affiliations,” Hovland said.
She describes her Wilton friends as representing a range of ideologies and parties who are “united” in their support for women’s reproductive healthcare.
“My guess was that their network of friends were equally diverse politically and equally committed to protecting those rights, and protecting children and families as well as the future of this community,” Hovland added.
She began by sending the letter to her Wilton contacts, and recipients were asked to email Hovland if they wanted to add their names as signees, and then forward the letter to ask their own contacts to do the same. She began getting responses, often with personal messages about the reasons they were signing the letter initiative.
Hovland listed a mother of two young daughters, a 92-year-old Wiltonian, a woman whose mother had been a lifelong member of Wilton’s League of Women Voters and several first-time voters from Wilton High School among those signing the letter.
While the letter echoes the pro-choice campaign emphasis of the Democratic party, she said she tried to craft a message that would also appeal to voters who weren’t registered Democrats but who felt strongly about guarding women’s equality and promoting women’s issues.
Hovland recognized less than half the names of the people who asked to be included and noted that while she didn’t know their political affiliations, she does “know for certain that there are registered Republicans, Democrats, Independents and unaffiliated voters included.”
“I really see the letter as a call to the feminists in Wilton — to do the necessary research that active civic engagement requires. I hope the letter inspires us to do local, grassroots work in whatever form feels comfortable to each of us, in order to promote the causes that impact the quality of our lives,” Hovland said, adding, “To fully realize our potential as human beings, we must have full control over our reproductive decisions. Choosing (or not) to have children and when to do so is a personal decision and central to our identities.”
That, said Hovland, can impact how involved women can get in Wilton and their ability to “play a role in determining what Wilton’s next chapter will be.”
Recognition Outside of Wilton
The Wilton letter inspired similar campaigns in other towns, including Westport. It also gained national attention when New York-based activist and author of “The Weekly List” Amy Siskind promoted it on her Facebook page with over 171,000 followers. In addition, the letter was publicized by the CT Women Education and Legal Fund and Pantsuit Nation CT, both of which have statewide reach.
Hovland did not seek out signatures from the women who are running to represent Wilton in Hartford — Democrat Ceci Maher and Republicans Toni Boucher and Kim Healy. Instead, she wanted it to be more of a grassroots effort and an outlet for residents to make a statement.
“The original intention was to keep the state candidates’ names off the letter so that it didn’t become another communication venue for their campaigns. It is their responsibility to inform voters about where they stand and I think they have all done that. They didn’t need this letter to do that,” she explained, although she said Maher contacted her.
Growing list of names
Hovland is more excited with the response the letter has gotten within Wilton.
“Every day a new list of names is added. The attention the letter has received suggests that even in this time of inflamed rhetoric, there is more that unites us than divides us,” something she said gives her hope.
A group of the signatories gathered at Old Town Hall Thursday evening, Nov. 3, to add their literal signatures to their digital ones, signing a poster-board-sized version that will take its place in the Wilton Historical Society’s archives. Alison Sanders, former historical society co-director, pointed out that it was the location where the first women to vote in Wilton 100 years ago would have cast their ballots.
Among those who signed the letter is resident Madeleine Bourdeaux, who said she added her name to “honor the legacy of the brave women who came before us, and to show my son and daughter the importance and power of a woman using her voice.”
When she forwarded the letter to her Wilton contacts, Bourdeaux said she thought it would be empowering and that, as women, they had a “vested interest in ensuring our rights, our equal rights, for us and for our future generations.”
“Whatever fulfills us, when it does not tread on the rights of others, has value and our right to do so should be respected and protected. A teacher, a stay-at-home mom, a CEO, a social worker, a President of the United States — it should all be within our grasp,” she wrote.
A similar reason motivated 17-year-old Wilton High School senior Miya Lasher to sign the letter. As a president of the Women’s Activism Club and as someone who will soon vote for the first time, she wanted to take the opportunity “enact change for women’s rights.”
“Historically, women’s voices have been silenced, and women have been taught that it’s better not to express their thoughts. It’s important for younger girls to grow up knowing that their voice matters and they shouldn’t be afraid to speak their opinions,” Lasher said.
Longtime Wilton resident Margie Beebe was one registered Republican who signed the letter. She said that she votes Democratic because of her concerns. “It’s important to cross the aisle, and I am hopeful after the midterms we can address this, as it’s the only way we can accomplish so much that we want to,” she told GMW.
Maura Connolly signed the letter along with her adult daughters and said this is a cause she’s been committed to for a long time, even more so since the reversal of Roe v. Wade in June “struck a chord in my life.”
“I couldn’t fathom the thought that a woman’s right to privacy, physical autonomy and personal choice was being decided by anybody other than herself. My daughters and I have written letters and attended rallies in support of reproductive rights and were happy to add our names to the Wilton Women Unite letter. It is through grassroots efforts like this that choice will be returned to women” Connolly said.
Official Recognition for the Letter
Hovland was thrilled that the Wilton Historical Society also thought the letter was important.
The Collections Committee of the Wilton Historical Society voted on Oct. 19 to add the signed letter to the archives at the Wilton History Room, which is run jointly by the Historical Society and Wilton Library. Hovland and several women are hosting an in-person signing event at Old Town Hall on Thursday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m., when Julie Hughes, the archivist and curator of the History Room, will formally accept the letter into the permanent archive. (Disclosure: Hughes serves on the Collections Committee and also signed the letter).
Hughes explained what made the letter impactful enough to be made a permanent part of Wilton’s records.
“The letter represents a significant number of Wiltonians banding together in a very formal, organized, and public way to make a socially significant statement. On top of that, the effort is being covered in the local news — another sign for us that the letter has potential significance as a notable record of this moment in Wilton’s continuing history,” she explained.
She also saw it as a continuation of the tradition of Wilton women working to pursue and promote women’s equality, something she says is a benefit to everyone, not just women.
That the letter recognized former residents, like Grace Knight Schenck and Alice Haynes Bennett, who were activists and political influencers was a critical point for Hughes.
“It is important for women today to realize that we didn’t just start this struggle today; those who came before us have already won so much ground and the momentum of their successes is on our side. We just have to carry on, regain lost ground, and keep on pushing for new advances,” Hughes said.
She points to several parallels between what the current women have done by signing the letter and what women 100 years ago did.
“Grace Knight Schenck, Wilton’s leading female political influencer of the 1910s and 1920s, believed that women had distinct political interests and should work together to achieve better representation for themselves at the local, state, and national levels. This letter is a direct continuation of that spirit. Schenck also wanted local women (and men) to be independent thinkers rather than partisan bloc voters, something the ‘Wilton Women Unite’ letter also supports. Schenck was a registered Republican, but in 1923 was behind the rare election of a Democratic candidate to the position of Wilton First Selectman, the victory of W. K. J. Hubbell over John Knapp. In that same election, she urged Democrats to split their tickets in favor of George Barringer, the Republican candidate for tax collector,” Hughes explained.
When it comes to abortion, Huges is less sure about what those former Wiltonians believed, but there are clues.
“Our only hint relates to Grace Knight Schenck, whose sister Marion Knight Garrison Chubb was a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood in New Jersey. Newark’s Chubb Health Center, now called the Mulberry Health Center, was named after her. Schenck, like her sister, was a suffragist. But the women were affiliated with different political parties and disagreed on prohibition. They did not necessarily agree on abortion,” Hughes said.
Perhaps 100 years from now, Wilton women will look back on what those who signed the letter did and be inspired as well. That’s something Hovland hopes.
“I hope that someday our letter will be considered one of the many ways Wilton women came together in support of our shared values. Personally, I want to be ‘on record’ for doing something — however small — to make progress for my daughters-in-law, my nieces, my grandchildren and for all women and bodies capable of giving birth,” she said.
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This letter was updated with additional details from Thursday evening’s signing event, including photographs.