For the guests attending the wedding of Katharine Dexter and Stanley McCormick on September 15, 1904, it was likely the social event of the year. Held in an exclusive Swiss estate belonging to the bride's mother, the wedding marked the union of two old and extremely wealthy social dynasties. Not only did the bride come from one of Michigan's most prominent families (her grandfather had been one of the founders of the University of Michigan while her father was an eminent jurist) but the groom was the youngest son of International Harvester founder, Samuel McCormick, and heir to an enormous fortune. The guests attending the wedding probably had no idea that Samuel McCormick had been experiencing symptoms of worsening mental illness over the previous decade and how tragic their married life would become. Certainly, nobody at the time could know that the legacy of that wedding day would eventual spark one of the great medical advancements of the 20th century, not to mention a social revolution that's still unfolding.
Katharine Dexter McCormick was born in 1875 in Dexter, Michigan (her hometown was named for one of her ancestors, actually). Her early life was marked by tragedy with the death of her father when she was fourteen and the death of her brother a few years later. After she and her mother returned to Massachusetts to live, Katharine decided to study science and medicine (which was wildly unconventional for the time, especially for a high society debutante), She entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1900 after taking three years of preparatory courses. In 1903, she distinguished herself by becoming the first woman to graduate from MIT with a science degree (her thesis title was "Fatigue of the Cardiac Muscle in Reptiles"). While she had intended to apply for medical school, this plan changed when she married Stanley McCormick a year later.
There was definitely no mystery in why she decided to marry the handsome and wealthy Stanley. Not only was he a championship tennis player, an amateur painter, and a football star, but he also helped broker a deal that led to the formation of International Harvester in 1902 making his family one of the wealthiest in the country. Although Katharine knew that Stanley had a family history of mental illness (his older sister Mary was in a sanitarium), she proceeded to marry him despite disturbing signs that he was developing mental illness himself. Katharine dismissed his growing mental instability as being due to the influence of his controlling mother and the newlyweds moved to Boston to get him away from his family in Chicago.
Despite Katharine's best efforts, Stanley's episodes worsened and he was eventually hospitalized in Boston's McLean Hospital for the Insane in 1906 for more than a year. Diagnosed with "dementia praecox of the catatonic type" (an early label for schizophrenia), Stanley's prospects for the future seemed dismal. No medical treatment existed for schizophrenia at the time except for hospitalization despite all the wealth that the McCormick family had at their disposal.
This began what would be a decades-long battle between Katharine and the McCormick family over Stanley's custody and long-term care (not to mention his share of the family fortune). After two years at McLean, Stanley's family decided to transfer him to "Riven Rock", the family estate in Santa Barbara, California. Ironically, the estate had been built for Stanley's sister, Mary, after she developed schizophrenia at the age of nineteen. Stanley himself had supervised the groundbreaking and construction and Mary had lived there until her eventual transfer to a sanatorium in Alabama. He would remain at the estate with his various doctors and attendants for the rest of his life. The McCormick family spared no expense in Stanley's treatment and even arranged for world-renowned psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin to come to California to see him. Despite the best efforts of his doctors, there was no improvement in his condition and Stanley McCormick was declared legally incompetent in 1909. A judge appointed Katharine and Stanley's remaining siblings as his guardians to oversee his care and treatment.
From that time on, Katharine's access to Stanley was severely limited. Since he appeared especially agitated when women were around, the doctors banned all access to women and Stanley's wife, mother and sister were no longer allowed to visit him. For the next twenty years, Katharine could only see Stanley at a distance despite her frequent visits to Riven Rock. The doctors also resisted her various attempts at bringing in other specialists to try alternative treatments in the hope of improving Stanley's condition.
Despite her inability to help her husband, Katharine channeled her energies, and the considerable fortune under her control, into becoming an active women's rights advocate. After first speaking at a women's suffrage rally in 1909, she worked with early suffragettes, including Carrie Chapman Catt and helped found the National American Women Suffrage Association. It was definitely an uphill struggle with the early suffragettes waging legal battles simply to be heard at open-air rallies across the country.
Along with testifying for a suffrage bill before a Massachusetts legislative committee in 1911 and serving as one of Carrie Chapman Catt's lieutenants, Katharine also provided $6000 of her own money to make up the deficit of the Women's Journal and served as treasurer. During World War I, she also worked as chairman of the association's War Service Department and as a member of the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, Katharine became the first vice-president of the newly-formed League of Women Voters.
While she was working in the suffrage movement, Katharine McCormick became an advocate of reproductive choice in women. Since she and her husband had no children (and she had no interest in having any children with Stanley given her concerns about hereditary insanity), she was inspired by a speech given by Margaret Sanger in 1917. Despite the fact that Sanger had actually opposed women's suffrage, Katharine recognized how few reproductive options were available to women of that era and she turned her attention to supporting Sanger's clinic. With the success of the women's suffrage movement in winning the right to vote, she was free to turn all of her considerable energy and resources to the new cause.