Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rare Photo of Katharine Coman, Colleague of Katharine Lee Bates

When I was researching my July 4th post about the song "America the Beautiful," I became interested in the life and poetry of Katharine Lee Bates (1859 -1929), the author of the great hymn.

Bates graduated from Wellesley College, an all-woman college in Falmouth, Massachusetts, in 1880. Wellesley would have many famous graduates in the years ahead, including Mrs. Chiang Kai-Shek and Hillary Clinton. Bates moved from student to professor, as she taught English literature at Wellesley throughout her working life.

One of Bates' colleagues, a fellow teacher at Wellesley College, was Katharine Coman (1857 - 1915), a distinguished economist who wrote books on history and economics. Wellesley named a professorship in her honor.

Both Katharines were close to the same age, became fast friends and lived together for 25 years, until Coman died of breast cancer in 1915. Neither Bates nor Coman ever married, and it is debated whether or not they were lesbian lovers. Personally, I don't care, as it does not detract one iota from my respect and admiration for either woman. Others, however, contend that they were only "Boston wives," a term given to women and widows who lived together to share household chores and expenses. Many women of the time did this, particularly widows who lost their husbands in World War I.

Both Bates and Coman graduated from college in 1880 -- a rare feat in those days, even for men. By becoming great scholars and career women (at a woman's college yet) they substantially reduced their chances for marriage. In those days men did not want to marry women who were more educated or who made more money than they did. Many if not most men preferred women who would be mothers and homemakers, and in those days where modern conveniences were lacking, it would have been very difficult to be both homemakers and professors. So it is not surprising that the two women lived their lives single, regardless of whether they were heterosexual or not.

Whatever the case, the two women loved each other as family, and this love is obvious in Bates' poetry following Coman's death. Bates nursed Coman for three years after her diagnosis, during a difficult time of decline, and grieved deeply when Coman died. Bates wrote a book of remembrance, of poetry, dedicated to Coman. The book was called "Yellow Clover," after the flower they identified with each other. It was published in 1922.

The poetry is lovely and fresh and original. It speaks to all humans who have grieved over the loss of a loved one, regardless of their orientation.

I found a copy of "Yellow Clover" at the Googles Books website, where they release out-of-copyright books into the public domain, as pdf files. I downloaded the book and discovered that one of the first pages bore a photograph of Katharine Coman. I made a copy of it with screen capture, then enhanced it and cleaned it up with Photoshop. Since photos of Coman appear to be rare if nonexistent on the web, I am releasing it here for anyone who might be interested. Use it as you see fit.

These two great American women led incredibly productive lives and contributed to the education of hundreds of women during their careers. They deserve to be remembered.

1 comment:

Myra Johnson said...

thank you for making this information readily available on the internet
you may not care wether the Katherine's were lesbian but i believe there may exist some lesbians who care
Katherine Coman and Katherine Bates are American heroines and if they were also lesbians in a committed relationship perhaps this is an important an aspect of their lives and of their lives together as any other accomplishments they left behind.
Perhaps celebrating their relationship is also as important as documenting their lives.
Had they had the right to marry, and the social acceptance to do so, given the involved state of religiousity during the mid-1800's to early 1900's, their marriage would have been included in their biographies individually. As it is today, perhaps the exists that their's was a de facto marriage in that they are often listed together in the biographies of the other.