In 1879, the Connecticut legislature passed a law that outlawed the manufacture, sale, and use of contraceptives within the state. The law was sponsored by PT Barnum, the circus impresario who did double-duty as a legislator when he wasn’t entertaining the public.
Over the years, attempts to overturn the law within the legislature and the courts repeatedly failed. Lawsuits related to the contraceptive ruling were brought to the US Supreme Court in 1943 and 1961, but the justices found fault in the respective filings and dismissed the cases.
The onerous law was eventually overturned in 1965 by the US Supreme Court, thanks largely to the unlikeliest advocate: Estelle Griswold, a one-time singer who took a nonprofit job for which she had no qualifications and only accepted because she needed money after her husband became too ill to work.
She was born Estelle Naomi Trebert on June 8, 1900, in Hartford. Her father was a toolmaker of limited financial means, and her working-class household was unable to support her dreams of becoming a singer. But Estelle was not in the habit of rejection taking easily—after graduating from high school, she took a job in a bank to earn money to study singing at the Hartt School of Music. Desiring to make a name for herself on the stage, she moved to Paris in 1922 to study voice, despite the very strong disapproval of her parents.
Unfortunately, her Parisian adventure became physically and emotionally tumultuous—she contracted tuberculosis, which put her studies on hold, and she began a relationship with a writer that ended shortly before they planned to marry. She left Paris after receiving word that her mother’s health was deteriorating—both of her parents died shortly after her return, and she opted to remain in America.
Estelle sought to revive her hopes for a singing career, but steady work eluded her. She became reacquainted with Richard Griswold, a classmate from her days at Hartford High School who went on to attend Yale and find work in the advertising industry. They married in 1927 and relocated to New York, where Estelle found radio singing jobs on the NBC Red Network. The couple later moved to Washington, DC, where she gave up her music career and began pre-medical studies at George Washington University, later gaining employment at school as a medical technologist.
During World War II, Griswold left his job to join the US State Department’s Office of Political Affairs. At the end of the war, he was transferred to Europe and Estelle joined him. Eager to help in the humanitarian efforts on the war-damaged continent, she sought employment with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) but was rejected by the human resources department. Undeterred, she bypassed the department and appealed directly to the agency’s executive officers, who hired her.
In her work with UNRRA and in later positions with church-based humanitarian organizations, Estelle observed the struggles faced by European refugees and by the generationally impoverished in North Africa and Latin America. Her work shaped her views on population control, and she believed that the lack of information on contraception fueled the social and economic crises in the poorer regions of the world and her own country.
The Griswolds returned to Connecticut in the early 1950s, but Richard’s health began to deteriorate due to emphysema and Estelle needed to bring additional funds into their home. Although she had no experience running a non-profit, she was offered and accepted the job of executive director at the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut—her volunteer work with the Human Relations Council and the infertility and marital counseling programs at Yale were enough for the organization to entrust her with its leadership.
Estelle initially organized so-called “border runs” that took Connecticut women to New York or Rhode Island to obtain birth control products that were illegal in the state. But she tired of the laborious efforts to circumvent the law and decided to challenge its constitutionality.
In 1961, Estelle teamed with Yale professor Dr. C. Lee Buxton to open a birth control clinic in New Haven that distributed contraceptives. They were arrested and convicted under state law, and each were fined $100. Their convictions were upheld by the Appellate Division of the Circuit Court, and by the Connecticut Supreme Court.
The case, known as Griswold vs. Connecticut, made its way to the US Supreme Court. But whereas earlier attempts to involve the court to challenge Connecticut’s law ended in dismissal, the justices accepted the case. Unlike the earlier dismissals of the challenges to the Connecticut law, the justices agreed to hear the case. On June 5, 1965, the court ruled 7-2 in Griswold’s favor.
Justice William O. Douglas, writing the majority decision, argued the Connecticut law violated marital privacy, which he defined as “older than the Bill of Rights.” Justice Arthur Goldberg concurred by linking the right to privacy to the Ninth Amendment, while Justices Byron White and Justice John Marshall Harlan II authored opinions stating the right to privacy was protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In their dissent, Justices Hugo Black and Potter Stewart claimed there was no specific mention of a right to privacy in the Constitution, with Black complaining, “I like my privacy as well as the next one, but I am nevertheless compelled to admit that government has a right to invade it unless prohibited by some specific constitutional provision.”
Today, constitutional scholars view Griswold v. Connecticut as the steppingstone for Supreme Court rulings related to privacy invasions, most notably 1973’s Roe vs. Wade and 2003’s Lawrence vs. Texas.
For Estelle Griswold, the court victory was a bittersweet triumph. Her leadership of Planned Parenthood was marked with tensions within the organization on how she managed expenses, and during this time her husband’s health declined rapidly; Richard Griswold died in 1966. She resigned her executive director’s position shortly after the Supreme Court ruling and withdrew from public life.
Estelle Griswold passed away in Fort Myers, Florida on August 13, 1981 at the age of 81. In 1994, she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame with a citation that noted, “Griswold’s courage and determination continue to pave the way for further protection of women’s rights, as her landmark case set tremendous precedent for future Supreme Court decisions.”