Coman, Katharine

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COMAN, Katharine

Born 23 November 1857, Newark, Ohio; died 11 January 1915, Wellesley, Massachusetts

Daughter of Levi P. and Martha Seymour Coman

Katharine Coman's father, a graduate of Hamilton College, was a teacher, a lawyer, and a Civil War veteran. Coman graduated from the University of Michigan in 1880 with the Ph.B. degree. She immediately joined the faculty of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and remained there all her life, teaching rhetoric, economics, history, and sociology. She retired in 1913 as professor emeritus.

Coman was able to convince the college administration that economics was both suitable and necessary to the education of women. She was coauthor of four textbooks on English history, but wrote alone when she turned to economics. Her writings were of a practical bent, based on personal observation during her extensive travels.

The Industrial History of the United States (1905) was widely used as a textbook through 11 editions. In recognition of Coman's contribution, the Katharine Coman Professorship of Industrial History was established at Wellesley in 1921. The two-volume Economic Beginnings of the Far West (1912) was the result of a four-year leave of absence for travel and research. It gives the reader an absorbing account of the explorers, the colonizers, the Mormon migration, the missionary priests in California, the Gold Rush, and the spread of slavery. Coman makes it clear that history proved the superiority of the free settler: "In competition with the fur traders and gold seekers, with Spaniards exploiting Indian labor, and Southern slave holders, the homesteaders, working with his family in liberty, everywhere won the land."

Coman's life was active in pursuit of social improvement. She helped to develop the Young Women's Christian Association at Wellesley in 1884. In 1881, when her friend Jane Addams was starting Hull House in Chicago, eastern colleges were talking about similar settlement houses. In 1891 the Wellesley Chapter of the College Settlements Association was organized by Coman, Vida Scudder, Katherine Lee Bates, Emily Balch, and other faculty members. In 1892 they opened Denison House, a college settlement in Boston. It was used as a center for union organizing as well as for child and adult education classes. Wellesley students worked here and in other settlement houses in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In addition to the practical social work experience it provided for students, the real purpose of college sponsorship was to arouse interest and sympathy on social questions and provide moral and financial support for the operation.

When Coman was visiting in Chicago in 1910 she came to the aid of the United Garment Workers in their strike against makers of ready-made men's clothing in Chicago. She acted as chairman of the grievance committee, and she wrote a stirring introduction to a booklet detailing the grievances. As a result, favorable publicity and public sympathy for the strike were achieved.

Throughout her life Coman was attached to her "family" on the faculty at Wellesley. She lived there with her closest friend, Katherine Lee Bates, who published a book of poems, Yellow Clover, as a memorial to Coman. It is a loving tribute to their companionship of 35 years.

Other Works:

The Growth of the English Nation (with E. Kendall, 1894). A History of England for High Schools and Academies (with E. Kendall, 1899). History of England for Beginners (1901). English History Told by English Poets (with K. L. Bates, 1902). History of Contract Labor in the Hawaiian Islands (1903).


Bates, K. L., Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance (1922). Burgess, D., Dream and Deed (1952). Hackett, A. P., Wellesley: Part of the American Story (1949). Halsey, O. S., "Katherine Coman 1857-1915," in The Survey (23 Jan. 1915). Henry, A., The Trade Union Woman (1915). Scudder, V., On Journey (1937).

Reference Works:

NAW, 1607-1950 (1971).