Remarkable women have left their indelible mark throughout the state, but author Tedd Levy has chosen to mine one Connecticut River town in particular for women who, throughout the town’s history, have made significant contributions in the arts, sciences, education, and government. His tireless research has resulted in “Remarkable Women of Old Saybrook,” published by The History Press.
A former teacher and educational consultant, Levy, a resident of Old Saybrook, writes a weekly history column for a local newspaper. He has written numerous articles on teaching history, educational issues, and public affairs for both professional and general circulation publications. He is a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, co-founder of Connecticut History Day, serves on the board of trustees of the Old Saybrook Historical Society, and is an overseer at Old Sturbridge Village.
The following is an exclusive interview with Levy about his book and the remarkable women who fill its pages.
Q. Why did you choose to write about remarkable women of Old Saybrook versus any other Connecticut town?
A. I do a newspaper column based on Saybrook and the area and people are always asking, ‘When are you going to do a book?’ I looked over some of the columns I had done and it sort of jumped out the large number of women who had made important contributions, and were largely unknown, even in Saybrook, and so, that seemed to be a really useful topic to put together in a book form.
Q. What is it about the small town of Old Saybrook that produces such remarkable women?
A. That is a good question and one I ask myself. I think part of the answer is in the fact that Saybrook, like other shoreline towns, is filled with summer, part-time residents, plus it has a long and honored history — it was settled in 1635 by the English. ... Given the attractiveness of Saybrook as a community, it attracted interesting sorts of people. I really do think that every community also has an important set of people who have made valuable contributions that are often unknown or little known. Why is that? In the case of women, women were discouraged or prohibited from participating in all spheres of activity. In some early cases, they could not vote, could not hold offices. Their lives were restricted and limited. And many of the women I’ve written about have broken down those barriers and expanded opportunities.
Q. How did you go about getting all the wonderful, personal details on these women that make them come to life besides just chronicling their accomplishments?
A. In a large number of cases it’s because of resources available: documents, letters, genealogies, photographs at the Old Saybrook Historical Society. And in some cases, I talked with descendants — relatives of the women themselves. There are multiple generations of notable women in the same family. The Hepburns, for example. [Actress] Katharine Hepburn’s mother, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, was really an outstanding groundbreaker. She was a fighter for women’s rights and an important cause that remains contentious today [birth control] and deserves a great deal more attention in my opinion.
Q. Who are some of the other lesser-known remarkable women that you were surprised to discover?
A. One would be Emily Ingham — and her older sister Marietta. They left Saybrook as young women to go to upstate New York with a missionary spirit. Emily was especially interested in education. They started a school for women in Attica, New York, were successful, and became known in the area and were invited to move their school to LeRoy, New York. There the school expanded, and eventually a charter from New York led to the establishment of the first university for women in New York State — Ingham University. They were very daring and courageous as young women to go to upstate New York, which was pretty much a wilderness in the 1830-’40s.
Another person who made very important contributions is author Ann Petry. African-American, she grew up in Old Saybrook, married and moved to Harlem where she worked for a newspaper and eventually was offered a contract by Houghton Mifflin to write a book based on stories she’d previously written about life in Harlem. She wrote a book called “The Street” and several others since that were widely admired and important. It gave people a better understanding of the struggles African American people were having during the 1940s [through the eyes of] a young single mother trying to survive in Harlem.
Another little known woman was Calista Vinton Luther. She was born in Burma; her parents were missionaries there. She was educated by her parents and worked with them. Eventually she left Burma to return to the U.S., was married, and went to college to become a psychiatrist. She ran a clinic in New Jersey and in summers began one here in Old Saybrook. She was an early female physician in the late 1890s into early 1900s in an unusual field for women — psychology — that was still in its early stages.
Q. Are any of the women you write about alive today?
A. Steffie Walters, not only for her entrepreneurial and community spirit but also because at a lively 102 she still has a twinkle in her eye, and my good friend Barbara Maynard (former First Selectwoman) who has devoted a lifetime of good works to her community and at a retirement age is still enthusiastically contributing to good causes.
Ann Sweet just died at age 93 on April 7. She was very active in the Old Saybrook Historical Society. She made major contributions there for years. She was an authority on Pequot Indians in early Colonial life, and contributed much of her work and information to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.
Q. What do all these very different women have in common?
A. They all had an education and were enterprising. It wasn’t necessarily a school education, they were educated in a variety of ways; they learned from their experiences. They were persistent and purposeful in working toward their objectives. They were inspired along those lines. They were courageous in fighting against all odds and overcoming some of the barriers they faced and ultimately what they did was socially important and useful and meaningful. It improved our society. They made a beneficial difference in the lives of others. And in doing so they expanded opportunities for everyone.
Remarkable Women of Old Saybrook by Tedd Levy (The History Press) is $21.99, softcover, illustrated, and available at local bookstores.