Partner Katharine Lee Bates

Queer Places:
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Stati Uniti
6 Howe St, Wellesley, MA 02482
Wellesley College (Seven Sisters), 106 Central St, Wellesley, MA 02481
70 Curve St, Wellesley, MA 02482, USA
Cedar Hill Cemetery, 275 N Cedar St, Newark, OH 43055, Stati Uniti
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mt Auburn St, Cambridge, MA 02138, Stati Uniti

Katharine Ellis Coman (November 23, 1857 – January 11, 1915) was an American historian, economist, sociologist, educator, and social activist. Vida Dutton Scudder lived for 35 years with the writer Florence Converse, her ‘comrade and companion’. They taught and did Settlement work together, and wrote fiction drawing on their relationship. Their friends Katharine Coman and Katharine Lee Bates, professors of economics and sociology, and English, respectively, co-founders of the Rivington Street Settlement, and partners for a quarter of a century, left Bates’ celebrated and loving poetic memoriam of Coman’s illness and death from breast cancer, the earliest such record in American literature.

Katharine Coman was the economist and first woman professor of statistics in the United States who helped Vida Scudder set up the College Settlement Association and who researched the lives of Black freehold farmers in the South (as well as economic history in Britain and the US, the sweating system, the market and water supply, and contract labour in Hawaii – an encyclopaedic spread of subjects characteristic of much female Settlement sociology).

Coman worked at Wellesley College for 35 years as an instructor, professor, and dean. Believing that the discipline of political economy could be harnessed to solve the pressing social problems of the day, Coman created new courses in the discipline. She specialized in research and teaching about the development of the American West, and British and American industrialism. In her work, she criticized capitalism and was supportive of the labor movement. She was the only woman co-founder of the American Economics Association, the author of the first important history of industry in the US, and the first female statistics professor in America. Throughout her life, she traveled widely to conduct her economics research. A social activist, Coman supported the settlement movement and the labor movement. She shared a home with poet Katharine Lee Bates for 25 years, and the two women often traveled together. Coman died of breast cancer in 1915. Wellesley College created the Katharine Coman Professorship of Industrial History in her honor.

Coman was born on November 23, 1857, to Martha Ann Seymour Coman (1826–1911) and Levi Parsons Coman (1826–1889) in Newark, Ohio.[1][2] Upon her birth, Coman's father reportedly said that he would show educators how a girl should be educated.[3] Her mother had graduated from an Ohio female seminary, and her father had been educated at Hamilton College, and thus Coman's received much of her early education at home. She attended the University of Michigan for two years, left college to teach in Ottawa, Illinois for two years, and then returned to university.[3] She earned the Bachelor of Philosophy (PhB) degree in 1880, one of only a handful of women to do so.[4] She was heavily influenced by the work of John Stuart Mill, which is evident in her later work as economist and historian.[4] Coman attended lectures about socialism while traveling in London.[5]:111 Later in her career, she became influenced by Alfred Marshall (1890), Francis Amasa Walker (1883), and social Darwinism.[4] While at the University of Michigan, Coman studied under Professors Charles Kendall Adams of the German Historical School; James Burrill Angell, then president of the university; and Henry Carter Adams, a renowned statistician.[4] After graduating with her PhB, she joined the faculty at Wellesley College, a newly established private college for women.

Coman was recruited to Wellesley College by Alice Freeman, Wellesley's president, whose goal was to attract idealistic women faculty members to teach young women how to rebuild American society after the economic and social ravages of the Civil War.[6] Noting her talent for teaching, the president of the University of Michigan, James Burrill Angell, recommended Coman.[4] She first taught English rhetoric,[1] and in 1881 became an instructor in history.[7] In 1883, she was promoted to full professor of history.[1][4] Because Coman believed that economics could address social problems, she urged the Wellesley College administration to offer courses in economics, and in 1883, she taught Wellesley's first political economy class.[4] To teach students about the practicality of applying economic theory to real world economic and social problems, Coman escorted her students on field trips to Boston's tenement houses, labor union meetings, factories, and sweatshops.[8] In 1885, at the age of 28, she became professor of history and economics.[4] That same year, she turned down the offer of a position as dean of women at the University of Michigan, stating that she preferred to remain at Wellesley and continue teaching.[4]

Bates and Coman met at Wellesley in 1890 and were together for 25 years until Coman's death. They traveled together, encouraged other promising female intellectuals, and built a house for themselves which they named Scarab in honor of their trip to Egypt. When Vida Dutton Scudder, Katharine Lee Bates, and Katharine Coman came up with the idea of a settlement house, Coman turned to her friend, Cornelia Warren, for funding to get it up and running.

Coman was acting dean of Wellesley College from 1899 to 1900; during that period she established a new department of economics[3] and sociology, becoming its head in 1900.[4] She retired from full-time teaching at Wellesley in 1913,[9] becoming professor emeritus.[10] About the farewell dinner held in her honor, the New York Times wrote: "Miss Coman has been so closely associated with the history and development of Wellesley for so long a time that her loss is felt very deeply by the whole college."[9] Coman continued to research and write until her death in 1915.[4]

She developed and taught new courses in economics, history, and rhetoric at Wellesley, including Statistical Study of Economic Problems, Industrial History of the United States, and Conservation of Our Natural Resources, all framed by sociological insights related to social justice.[4] Coman was the first American woman to teach statistics.[4][11] Wellesley was the only American women's college to offer statistics courses before 1900.[11]

According to historian Melinda Ponder, Coman was a popular teacher.[6]:66 Two of her students, Helen Frances Page Bates and Helen Laura Sumner Woodbury, were among the first American women to earn PhDs in economics.[4]:994 Woodbury is recognized as an important historian of labor and a noted economist,[12] while Helen Bates became a noted social worker.[4]

Coman's papers are held by the Wellesley College Archives.[13] In 1921, Wellesley College established the Katharine Coman Professorship of Industrial History to honor her service to the College.[1][4]:1001

Coman and Elizabeth Kendall coauthored the 1902 book A Short History of England for School Use based on research that Coman had conducted in England between the years 1886 and 1894. Coman published The Industrial History of the United States[3] in 1910. Considered the first industrial history of the United States,[4] the book was reprinted nine times before 1915.[3] Her 1911 article, "Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation," was the first article published in the newly formed journal American Economic Review.[4]:36

Her 1912 work Economic Beginnings of the Far West: How We Won the Land Beyond the Mississippi[7]:xi was considered by contemporaneous scholars to be Coman's magnum opus,[2]:166[a] and "one of the most important fruits of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching."[14] The book outlined the economic history of the American West.[b] In this work, Coman describes the historical economic processes that led to the Far West coming under the control of settlers. She found that settlers were more economically successful than explorers, traders, trappers, and indigenous peoples because the settlers built permanent settlements, reproduced at a higher rate, and established networks of collaboration.[15]:354

Settlement movement activist Jane Addams, a close friend, urged Coman to research social insurance programs in Europe in order to establish similar programs in the United States.[3] Coman studied social insurance in England, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden, but poor health prevented her from continuing her research.[3] Her manuscript, "Unemployment Insurance: A Summary of European Systems" was published after her death in 1915.[3][c]

Coman was passionate about social and economic issues,[6][4] especially women's education, poverty, immigration, and labor.[2][3][4] Throughout her life, she was active in social reform movements, especially the labor movement and the settlement movement.[2][3][4] She served as the president of the electoral board and chair of the standing committee of the National College Settlements Association in 1900.[3] Coman organized a group of immigrant women who worked in Boston sweatshops,[2]:166 naming the group an "Evening Club for Tailoresses,"[3] and attempted to found a tailor shop that could have been an alternative to sweatshops.[3] She assisted in organizing the 1910 Chicago garment workers' strike,[16] which involved 40,000 factory workers.[17] Coman also worked with the Women's Trade Union League.[2]:166 Working with her economist and sociologist friend Emily Greene Balch and other women, Coman co-founded Denison House,[2]:166[3] a college women's settlement house located in Boston in 1892, serving as its first chair. Denison House provided a center for Boston's labor activists,[3] and is thought to be the first settlement house on the East Coast.[1]

For 25 years, Coman lived in a "Boston marriage"[18]:192 with Wellesley professor and poet Katharine Lee Bates,[19]:190 the author of "America the Beautiful". Such partnerships were so common among Wellesley faculty that they were called "Wellesley marriages".[18]:185; 191–2 Coman and Bates shared a house they named "the Scarab" with Bates' mother, Cornelia, and her sister, Jeannie.[5]:153 The women reportedly enjoyed life together as family.[5]:176 Coman frequently traveled for her research on economic history;[4] she visited Europe, the American West, Scandinavia, and Egypt. Bates accompanied her on many of these trips.[1] Some scholars believe the two women were a lesbian couple.[20][18]:196[d]

Coman first discovered a lump in her left breast in the fall of 1911 and underwent two surgeries in the following months. At the time, medical doctors did not understand the nature of breast cancer, its causes or its treatments, so the prognosis for Coman was poor.[21] Coman died at home in January 1915 at the age of 58.[1][21]:62 She died in a room the family had named Bohemia, as it looked out over the trees and gardens below.[5]:176 At the time of her death, Coman was working on an industrial history of New England.[4]:1001[22]

During Coman's illness, Coman and Bates' women friends—many of them also in Wellesley marriages—took Coman out for walks and visits, and invited her to stay at their country homes. They prepared meals for Coman and Bates, brought flowers and fresh vegetables, and performed tasks and services to keep Coman's spirits up.[21]

Bates chronicled Coman's illness in her diary, noting hospital visits, surgical procedures, and details about Coman's pain and suffering.[21] According to cancer historian Ellen Leopold, in the days after Coman's death, Bates wrote a memorial to Coman that was designed to be circulated privately among the women's close friends and family.[21]:61[23] Leopold believes that the book, "For Katharine Coman's Family and Innermost Circle of Friends," is the first breast cancer narrative in American literature.[21]:61 Near the end of Coman's life, the two women exchanged loving farewells through reciting poems and psalms to each other.[21][23][5]:176 Several years after Coman's death, Bates continued to mourn and to recall Coman's suffering.[5] In 1922, she published a book of poems about Coman's illness in the book Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance.[20][e] The book's title emerged from the fact that the "two Katharines," as the women were known, would send each other sprigs of yellow clover as tokens of affection.[24] Bates wrote: And I must bear this grief night after night, Day after day, through weeks and months and years, This grief becomes myself, too dull for tears, Bewildered beyond all pain, past all desire.

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