In the early days of the fight for women’s voting rights, Connecticut’s Glastonbury cows were the stars of the show.
In June of 1869 the tax collector in Glastonbury, Conn., asked two elderly sisters to pay their road tax early, which they did. Abby and Julia Smith were then surprised when the town accidentally billed them for the tax again in October.
When they asked that the town correct the matter, the tax collector, Albert Crane, refused. When they tried to enter Town Meeting to raise the issue, they were turned away. And thus, two suffragists were born.
Abby and Julia Smith
The Smiths were wealthy, quite possibly the wealthiest family in Glastonbury. Their father was a one-time clergyman who pursued a career in law. He left his daughters a large land holding, investments and a farm. Their mother left them a sizable inheritance, as well.
The frustrated sisters paid the tax a second time, but they were furious that they lacked political power. They began attending women’s suffrage rallies. And with the passing years, their frustration grew. Their taxes went up. And in 1874, they were told they could not let the tax go unpaid in exchange for a 12 percent interest charge – a courtesy afforded other taxpayers.
The Smiths grew convinced that Glastonbury only raised taxes on properties owned by women, and that they couldn’t delay payment because they were women. They became convinced that modern women needed a vote, and decided to stop paying taxes until they could.
“Taxation Without Representation,” was their rallying cry. The Smiths joined a group of women suffragist activists who chose taxes as their protest weapon of choice. Abby Smith wrote regularly on the topic:
“We have lately sent a day in celebrating the heroism of those who threw overboard the tea; but how trifling was the tea-tax, and how small the injustice to individuals compared with this one of our day!”
The Glastonbury Cows
In 1874, the matter came to a head when the tax collector seized seven cows from the Smith sisters and auctioned them off to pay the taxes. The sisters used a straw buyer to retrieve most of the cows, and the story of the Glastonbury sisters and the Glastonbury cows went international.
As the story spread, it sparked heated newspaper columns. The Smith sisters’ critics argued that the pair received all sorts of services in exchange for their money: roads, schools, police protection, etc. In one clumsy analogy, a writer noted they were like children, who also couldn’t vote. The arguments against the two only made their case stronger.
The supporters of the Smiths, on the other hand, took great pleasure in promoting the story of the Glastonbury cows. Those who didn’t see the rightness of the Smiths arguments were, ‘too stupid to think, too selfish to feel for others, or too cowardly to stand up for the right not yet lifted into popular recognition.’
The Glastonbury cows themselves, meanwhile, became celebrities. Knickknacks woven out of their hair sold like hotcakes at fundraising bazaars that promoted voting rights for women. Julia published a popular book, Abby Smith and Her Cows.
For several years through 1878 the process of seizing part of the sisters’ herd of Alderney cows in lieu of tax payment and the Smiths buying them back continued.
The Glastonbury cows made the Smiths celebrities at rallies and allowed them to testify before Congress. In homes across America, the Glastonbury cows and the Smiths inspired conversations around the dinner table.
In 1878, at the age of 81, Abby died in July. The next year, Julia, age 87, decided to marry for the first time. Her husband began paying the taxes on her property, and she repaid him in a compromise of love.
Julia Smith did not contain her feminism to tax protests and suffrage. She also published, in 1876, the only translation of the Bible written by a woman. Julia’s father belonged to the Sandemanian school of Christianity, which believed worship needed a conscious, mental act rather than just a spiritual comitment. The apple apparently didn’t fall far from the tree.
Julia, curious about what might have been altered in the King James version of the Bible, decided to translate it herself from Greek, Hebrew and Latin texts. She translated literally and made no effort to update the language or provide context to Biblical stories.
In 1881, Glastonbury voted Crane, the tax collector, out of office. When the town discovered several thousand dollars missing, he said he couldn’t square accounts because someone stole his books.
“I’m not surprised at anything he says,” Julia wrote.
In 1886, Julia died after relocating from Glastonbury to Hartford. Like many early suffrage agitators, she died without seeing women vote. Not until the 1890s would women vote in some elections in Connecticut, and women wouldn’t vote nationwide until 1920.
This story about the Glastonbury cows was updated in 2018.