Connecticut: Homes of the brave

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Connecticut's female 'architects of society' helped create today's International Women's Day. Harriet O'Brien explores this small state with big ideas

The little cream-coloured house is set back from the road in a dainty cottage garden. With its porch and gingerbread trim it looks the model of a neat, 19th-century Connecticut home. Inside, the dining room is set up for breakfast while, by the fireside of the cosy family parlour, a game of checkers has been laid out. The walls are hung with family pictures and flower paintings by the lady of the house. These, you note, are more than passingly competent for an amateur.

Plants in pots thrive in the light that streams in through pale blinds and muslin drapes. Remarkably for a Victorian-era home, there are no heavy curtains: the owner, you are told, was a great advocate of fresh air and daylight. Painstakingly restored, this was the last home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the 19th-century equivalent of Martha Stewart. She made her name writing articles about how women should run their households – and went on to become one of the most radical of America's authors.

In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe started a series of heartfelt stories about slavery for the abolitionist National Era newspaper. Ten months later the last of 45 instalments was published. The series was quickly reproduced in book form and Uncle Tom's Cabin rapidly became the biggest bestseller of 19th-century America: an astonishing 10,000 copies were snapped up within the first week of publication alone. In Britain the book was equally well received. It was controversial stuff; while the book was acclaimed by the abolitionist states of northern America, it was banned in parts of the South. In 1862, 10 years after Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published, and a year after the start of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe and is famously said to have remarked: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war".

Could that have been true? "Well," Katherine Kane, the executive director of the centre based at the house, told me, "whether or not Lincoln really used those words, the story certainly represents what people of the time thought."

Harriet Beecher Stowe's house is located in Hartford, Connecticut's capital. It is curiously redolent of the beguiling nature of this little state. Stretching just 60 miles from north to south, Connecticut is America's third-smallest state (after Delaware and Rhode Island). With a population of 3.5 million, it is also the fourth-most densely populated. Yet for the most part you don't get a sense of being crowded here: many of those millions seem to live in wonderfully timeless villages. This is classic New England with a strong sense of history and wealth – despite the pockets of poverty. It is a place of pretty clapboard houses and mansions, of yachts and old fishing ports along a lovely 71-mile coast.

Yet it is also the back room of New York, a Surrey-like bolthole for big-city workers, and a buffer zone between the Big Apple and Boston in next-door Massachusetts. Home to the Ivy League institution of Yale in the town of New Haven, Connecticut seems at the outset conservative and rather charmingly reserved. Scratch the surface, though, and there's a rich heritage of shrewd merchants – and of particularly plucky women.

These 19th- and early-20th-century ladies helped set the mood of change sweeping through both America and Europe at the time. Some were campaigners against slavery and inequality; others were trailblazers, the first women professionals. Through their activities they ultimately contributed to the creation of International Women's Day, on 8 March 1911 in Denmark, its original purpose being to campaign globally for women's rights – we're still marking the date today, although now it has become a celebration of women's achievements as well as an ongoing quest for greater equality.

I was in Connecticut a week ago to trace the tales of a few of this small state's powerful and pioneering females, and to sample how their exploits reverberate now. The trail turned out to be an absorbing treasure-hunt. It took me, for a start, to the little-visited eastern edge of Connecticut, an area of farms and forests where villages are pin-drop quiet. The settlement of Canterbury on the Quinebaug River seemed especially tranquil, as if little had ruffled its 300-year history. Yet this was a far cry from the atmosphere in the 1830s, when a school for black girls was set up – and closed down. The elegant schoolhouse still stands and has become a small museum.

It tells the story of Prudence Crandall, an unmarried teacher who, in 1831, was invited by local landowners to establish a school for their daughters. The wealthy residents were scandalised when, a few months later, she admitted a black student. They withdrew their children – and support. Nothing daunted, Crandall dedicated the school to education of "young ladies and little misses of color". Horrified neighbours then persuaded the Connecticut General Assembly to introduce a new law that made Crandall's school illegal. She was arrested and tried.

After three years of tangled court procedures the case was dismissed on a technicality – at which point the furious local community launched a mob attack on the school. In face of such violence Crandall shut the academy. By now married (unhappily, if conveniently) to a Baptist minister, she left the state.

But that was not the end of her Connecticut connections: in 1886 younger residents of the state, including the author Mark Twain, pressured the General Assembly into issuing an apology and providing a pension for Crandall. She died (in Kansas) less than a year later, aged 87. In the 21st century, Crandall is now Connecticut's state heroine: she was officially declared such in 1995 after local schoolchildren petitioned the Assembly.

Moving on to Hartford, an even more remarkable petition is on show. At the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center I gaped at an amazing document. In a glass case one of 26 volumes of signatures is exhibited, presenting a tiny sample of more than half a million names that were collected in the 1850s. The campaigners were British women petitioning their "sisters" in the US to end the outrages of slavery. It is spine-tingling stuff.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, I realised with growing wonder, is rather more than a museum. It is also a platform for social change. It offers tours of the author's house, but it also comprises a library and research area in a neighbouring 19th-century mansion and it has a stated mission of preserving the author's work and, importantly, using it to inspire people today.

"We aren't done yet," said Kane. "There's still so much inequality and poverty across the world, and at the Center we try to spark discussions about this, using Stowe's life and story as a starting point. We aim to get people really thinking."

"Women are the real architects of society" wrote Beecher Stowe. A generation later the first professional women architects started work in Connecticut. Among the earliest half dozen to register was Theodate Pope. Driving 15 minutes west of Hartford I reached the postcard-pretty village of Farmington. On the crest of a hill beyond its streets of shuttered houses stands a colonial revival-style house. Hill-Stead is Pope's first building – now a museum and gallery. It was designated a national monument in 1991.

It is a stunningly attractive, beautifully sited property. The façade, dominated by a tall veranda, was modelled on George Washington's home, Mount Vernon. The interior uses light and space in a very pleasing way: the ground-floor windows, for example, are set low so that when sitting down you take in long views of the gardens and rolling landscape beyond.

Pope designed the property for her father, an affluent businessman from Ohio. He and his wife moved to Connecticut after their independently-minded daughter announced she wished to settle there and run a dairy farm. Not quite what you would expect of a wealthy heiress, but then you didn't, evidently, argue with Theodate Pope. She first came to Connecticut as a pupil of the elite girls' school, Miss Porter's. This establishment is still going strong today, and its alumni include Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Gloria Vanderbilt.

After graduating, Pope did indeed set up a diary farm, but not before being whisked off by her parents on a Grand Tour of Europe. She returned inspired to become an architect as well as a farmer.

During this visit to Europe, her father, Alfred, started what was to become an outstanding collection of Impressionist paintings. His was by no means a remote u o interest: he met Monet, Degas, Whistler and many others of that milieu. And he bought at least one of his finest paintings from the dealer Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent.

When Theodate Pope began designing her father's Connecticut country house in the late 1890s she had this collection very much in mind and devised rooms specifically for certain paintings: a Degas of jockeys, for instance, has a perfectly proportioned space in the panelling around the dining room fireplace.

The Pope parents left Hill-Stead and its contents to their daughter who, in turn, bequeathed it to the public, but on the firm proviso that nothing should be added or altered and none of the art collection loaned out. So the property remains exactly as it was on her death in 1946. And it remains the only place where you will ever see Manet's The Guitar Player (1866), Whistler's The Blue Wave, Biarritz (1862) and more.

My guided tour of the house was a happy if bewildering assault on the visual senses. You try to take in the light-filled layout of the sitting room but a Degas of dancers grabs your attention. You turn your eyes and there's one of Monet's studies of haystacks. You look across the room and do a double-take: there's another, later oil painting from the same series. And yet magically this house still feels like a home rather than a museum. It is as if the Popes have kindly invited you to drop by.

Yale, a 45-minute drive south, offers even greater art treasure. The university spreads out from the old 16-acre green at the heart of New Haven, which, founded in 1638, was one of the earliest planned cities in North America. On Chapel Street, adjacent to the green, are Yale's two great art troves, set more or less opposite each other and both occupying seminal buildings by the modernist architect Louis Kahn: the Yale Center for British Art designed in the 1970s; and the 1950s Yale University Art Center, part of which has recently reopened after substantial refurbishment. Entry is free to everyone – and not only these art galleries but also most of the university's concerts, talks and special film shows. For all the reputation of privilege here, this is an astonishingly open and welcoming establishment. The Yale authorities even organise free guided tours, conducted by undergraduates.

I joined one. We took in the Old Campus, its buildings dating from 1750, and some of the Gothic-revival colleges of James Gamble Rogers who, in the early 1900s, was so determined to recreate Yale as an American Oxbridge that he dribbled acid down the front of his buildings to "age" them, and broke (and mended) window panes to give a fake-15th-century feel.

And what of women at the university? "Yale got off to a slow start," I was told by our guide. "But we're catching up fast." Although women were admitted to Yale's School of Fine Arts in 1869 and started attending graduate schools from 1891, it was not until 1969, astonishingly, that the first female freshmen entered the university. The Women's Table, a sculpture by the artist Maya Lin, was commissioned in 1993 to celebrate women at Yale.

Lin's sculpture sits outside one of the university's most extraordinary buildings. James Gamble Rogers's Sterling Library was designed as a neo-Gothic cathedral complete with stained glass, vaulted ceilings and an "altar" where books are checked out. Across the way I was shown the Yale Law School, the meeting place of former students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton. Bizarrely, it too is modelled as a Gothic church.

Given the ecclesiastical ambience it seemed churlish not to take a look at a genuine place of prayer. And by chance I had good reason. That afternoon I snuck into the back of Yale's Battell Chapel to witness history in the making. A service was being held to install the university's first-ever woman chaplain. I arrived in time to hear the Yale Gospel Choir filling the 19th-century hall with a joyous melody.

Traveller's Guide:

GETTING THERE
Boston is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.americanairlines.co.uk) from Heathrow.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
The writer travelled with America As You Like It (020-8742 8299; www.americaasyoulikeit.com), which offers seven-night fly-drives to Boston and Connecticut from £995 per person. This includes flights from Heathrow to Boston, two nights in Boston, two nights in Hartford and three nights at Yale, plus car hire.

GETTING AROUND
For those not on a fly-drive package, a week's rental of a small car from Budget's office at Boston Logan airport (08445 819 999; www.budget.co.uk) costs from £112.
Public transport between the main towns and cities is, by American standards, pretty good. New Haven is on the main rail line between Boston and New York.

STAYING THERE
The Goodwin Hotel, 1 Haynes Street, Hartford (001 860 246 7500; www.goodwinhotel.com). Doubles from $156 (£82), room only. Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale, 155 Temple Street, New Haven (001 203 772 6664; www.omnihotels.com). For a superb panorama head to John Davenport's top floor restaurant. Doubles from $279 (£147), room only.

VISITING THERE
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, 77 Forest Street, Hartford (001 860 522 9258; www.harrietbeecherstowe.org). Open Tues-Sat 9.30am-4.30pm and Sun noon-4.30pm; tours $8 (£4.20); joint ticket with the adjacent home of Mark Twain $16.50 (£8.70).
Prudence Crandall Museum, 1 South Canterbury Road, Canterbury (001 860 546 7800; www.cultureandtourism.org/cct). Open between Apr-Dec, Wed-Sun 10am-4.30pm; admission $3 (£1.60).
Hill-Stead Museum, 35 Mountain Road, Farmington (001 860 677 4787; www.hillstead.org). Guided tours Tues-Sun 11am-4pm; $9 (£4.75).
Yale University Art Gallery, 111 Chapel Street, New Haven (001 203 432 0611; www.artgallery.yale.edu). Open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Thurs until 8pm and Sun 1-6pm; free.
Free Yale Campus Tours Mon-Fri 10.30am and 2pm and weekends 1.30pm, departing from Yale Visitor Center, 149 Elm Street, New Haven (001 203 432 2300; www.yale.edu/visitor).

EATING & DRINKING THERE
Max Downtown, 185 Asylum Street, Hartford (001 860 522 2530; www.maxrestaurantgroup.com).
Consiglio's Restaurant, 165 Wooster Street, New Haven (001 203 865 4489; www.consiglios.com).

MORE INFORMATION
International Women's Day: www.internationalwomensday.com
Discover New England: 01271 336 195; www.discovernewengland.co.uk

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