While I was attending the Wellesley public schools, pretty much our only lessons on the history of the town involved Katharine Lee Bates. Don’t get me wrong — I think her story as a Wellesley College professor and author of the patriotic hymn, America the Beautiful, is extremely interesting and quite inspirational. Furthermore, Bates provides an example of an independent woman who achieved professional success within a society that limited the opportunities for women. The lesson, therefore, serves as an important supplement to our regular androcentric history curriculum. But is she the only such example from Wellesley? Absolutely not. And we don’t need to stray too far from Bates to find a second woman. Just consider her closest friend and fellow Wellesley College professor, Katharine Coman.
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of Coman. Unfortunately, she never received strong name recognition outside of academia. But within the fields of economics and history, Coman is well-known for her pioneering research. Deeply concerned about the working and living conditions of immigrants, women, and the poor, she traveled far and wide to study firsthand the problems that confronted these groups. It was this personal approach combined with rigorous analytics that helped give rise to the field of sociology. In fact, Coman became the first chair of the department of economics and sociology at Wellesley College in 1901. Through this position, she was able to make a significant impact on her colleagues and students. The most notable example is Emily Greene Balch, a fellow economics professor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for her work with the International Women’s Congress for Peace and Freedom.
And Coman’s efforts to seek social change extended far beyond the ivory tower. One of her greatest achievements was helping to organize the Chicago Garment Workers’ Strike of 1910-11 where 40,000 factory laborers — mostly female immigrants — protested wage cuts and poor working conditions. Coman was also an ardent supporter of insurance for the elderly and unemployed, with much of her efforts occurring during the last few years of her life as she struggled with an illness that forced her retirement in 1913. It was also during this time that she established the first free kindergarten in Wellesley, an idea that came to her while on bed rest at home and unable to ignore the sounds of unsupervised young children playing in the streets. And when the kindergarten outgrew its classroom in the current Odd Fellows Building on Central Street, Coman secured a donation to construct the Anne L. Page Memorial Building at the corner of Weston Road and Central Street. The program she helped develop, now known as the Child Study Center and run by the Department of Psychology at Wellesley College, has been operational for 101 years.
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to discuss Coman’s connection to Katharine Lee Bates. After all, she was more than just a roommate and companion to Bates. She was a mentor and inspiration. When Bates arrived at Wellesley College to teach English, she viewed the job as merely a way to earn enough money so that she could write poetry during the rest of the year. But Coman’s intelligence and determination gave Bates reason to view her career “as a woman professor and scholar, pulling her up several levels, modeling serious vocational and professional commitment to her teaching, and introducing her to the wider world of social, economic, cultural, gender, and spiritual issues [Mahoney, 1998].”
So why not include a lesson on Coman in our public schools? If it weren’t for her, Wellesley might not have had the outstanding contributions of Katharine Lee Bates, nor would the nation have America the Beautiful. On its own, Coman’s story might just inspire a few of our young children just as so many others were a century ago.
- Wellesley Historical Commission files – #70 Curve Street
- Wellesley Townsman: 23 October 1908; 15 January 1915; 17 August 1923; 12 August 1976;
- Forum: 1915, Volume 24 by Time, Inc. (1915)
- Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 2 by Edward T. James et al. (1971)
- Seeing into the Life of Things by John L. Mahoney (1998)
- Wellesley College Archives