Gleason, Kate (1865–1933)

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Gleason, Kate (1865–1933)

American entrepreneur, engineer, philanthropist, real-estate developer, and innovator of low-cost housing. Born in Rochester, New York, on November 25, 1865; died in Rochester on January 9, 1933; daughter of Ellen McDermont and William Gleason; attended Nazareth Convent, Rochester High School, and Cornell University; never married; no children.


elected first female member of the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (1913); elected first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineer (1914); admitted to the Rochester Chamber of Commerce (1916); elected first female member the American Concrete Institute (1919).

Enrolled at Cornell University (1884); withdrew from Cornell (1884); enrolled and withdrew from Cornell (1888); served as secretary and treasurer of the Gleason Works (1890–1913); was first female bankruptcy receiver in New York State (1914); was first female president of an American bank, the First National Bank, East Rochester (1917–19); manufactured low-cost housing (1920); developed prefabricated building methods for low-cost housing (1920); left bequest creating the Gleason Fund for educational and charitable causes, which awarded Dr. Howard Kelly of Johns Hopkins University a donation for his pioneering research into cancer (1933); another bequest transformed the Rochester Mechanics Institute into the Rochester Institute of Technology (1933).

Kate Gleason was born in Rochester, New York, on November 25, 1865, the first of four children of Irish immigrants. As her parents were staunch Catholics, she attended parochial schools before enrolling at the local public high school. She was an independent and willful child. She wore her hair short and straight, instead of the long curls popular during the Victorian era, and preferred the company of boys. "They didn't want me," Gleason recalled. "But I earned my right. If we were jumping from the shed roof, I chose the highest spot; if we vaulted fences, I picked the tallest."

During the late 1860s, Kate's father William Gleason, a former machineshop apprentice, opened his own business in Rochester, specializing in toolmaking. He "combined a sympathetic interest in woman's emancipation with an evangelical zeal to acquaint his children—sons and daughters alike—with the marvels of mechanical engineering," writes Christopher Lindley. Kate's mother was a devoted supporter of women's suffrage and a friend of Susan B. Anthony . Anthony is reputed to have encouraged young Kate with her career ambitions.

After Kate's half-brother Thomas, her father's chosen successor, died during the Civil War, 11-year-old Kate persuaded her father to allow her to work in the shop:

I walked down to the shop, mounted a stool and demanded work. At the close of the day he handed me one dollar, my first pay. I had no pocket, so I tucked it in my dress, and lost it on the way home. My mother and grandmother made a terrible fuss.

In 1884, Gleason enrolled as a special student at Cornell University, hoping to become its first female graduate in engineering. A downturn in business, however, meant that her family could no longer afford to pay the tuition, and she was forced to return to Rochester. The day the news arrived, recalled Gleason, a male student acquaintance discovered her sitting beneath a tree on campus, crying, as she read the letter from her father.

He choked up and said brokenly that he was awfully sorry, but that at present he couldn't be more than a brother to me. I tried to convince him that I was crying at leaving college, but he attributed that statement to my maidenly modesty, and in the end I walked off furious if broken-hearted.

In 1888, Gleason once again enrolled at Cornell, but, by the end of the academic year, she had left, this time not to return. Aside from some instruction at the Rochester Mechanics Institute (subsequently the Rochester Institute of Technology), Gleason's education was completed on the shop floor.

William Gleason and his sons were fascinated by the design and manufacture of machine tools. In 1874, William designed an automatic planer for beveled gears, commonly used to transmit power around angles, which had previously been manufactured by hand. Because of William's planer, uniform beveled gears could be mass produced. Thus, when the depression of 1893 decimated the market for machine tools, Kate persuaded her father to focus his efforts on gears, and the Gleason Works soon became known for its specialized gear-cutting machines. Up to this point, beveled gears had been used almost exclusively in the manufacturing of bicycles. Kate, however, recognized their considerable potential.

When William hired his daughter to promote and market his new products, Kate was soon venturing across America and Europe, as the first female seller of machine tools. Her skill lay, not in technical innovation, but in her sales presentation. The quality of the tools made by the Gleason Works, their efficient design, and Kate's obvious knowledge of engineering problems, ensured success, especially with the emerging automobile industry. As Caroline Bird noted:

The early automobile industry was aggressively male. Suppliers selling to big companies entertained them lavishly and sometimes in questionable places. Kate could not, of course, take her prospects to the Everleigh Club . Instead she developed the art of telling amusing stories, and at one point in her selling career affected elaborate hairdos and carried violet garnished muffs to dramatize the advantage she enjoyed on the basis of her sex.

Over the decades, the automobile industry became the main consumer of the beveled-gear planer and allowed the Gleason Works to monopolize the gear-cutting market. The company became the foremost international manufacturer of specialized gears. Kate Gleason's sales presentations were so technically detailed and thorough that many of her customers believed she had invented the beveled-gear planer herself. Henry Ford once commented that the planer was "the most remarkable machine work ever done by a woman."

By 1913, prompted by disagreements within the family about how the Gleason Works should be run, Kate resigned as secretary and treasurer of the company. She was confident that what she had learned working at Gleason would serve her well in other fields:

It seemed to me that my experience would make it easier for me to go into a totally different line of business than it would for my brothers, who, up to that time had specialized on the shop end of the work. It was heartbreaking, because it meant leaving father and all the friends I loved.

Her first opportunity came a year later, when she was appointed as receiver in the bankruptcy of a machineshop in Rochester. Not only did Gleason recover the outstanding debt of the company, $140,000, but turned it into a hugely successful enterprise which generated a profit of one million dollars in three years.

In 1914, on the basis of her successful promotion of gear cutters designed by her father, Kate Gleason made engineering history by becoming the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering. Two years later, she was admitted to the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, as one of its first female members.

The relocation of the Gleason Works to a more spacious and modern location piqued Kate Gleason's interest in construction techniques and architecture. While building a large house of her own in Rochester, she noted that many of the workers on the project lived in East Rochester, where housing was scarce and expensive. In 1917, when Kate Gleason was appointed president of the National Bank in Rochester, she decided to tackle the housing problems of East Rochester. Along with the many properties which the bank held, the National Bank had inherited a semi-completed low-cost housing project.

With her own capital, Gleason took over the project, applying the principles of mass production which she had learned in the automobile industry. "My particular inspiration for the method came from a visit I made to the Cadillac factory a few years ago, when Mr. Leland showed me the assembly of the eight-cylinder engine," she recalled:

All this work was done by one man, but he was furnished with a cabinet on wheels, which contained every part he needed and only as many parts as he needed. It is not at all likely that Mr. Leland knew this one assembler out of the 8,000 men in the factory, but in showing me the work, he put his hand on the man's shoulder as though he were his friend and said, as I remember, "This man assembles our engine complete in eight hours, so that it complies with all tests, and it used to take two men four days."

Having experimented with new building materials and designs, Gleason's housing development, Concrest, employed a standardized blueprint and unskilled labor. The 100 houses contained six rooms, at an average cost of $4,000 per unit, and were constructed entirely of poured cement. The innovative design and production methods led to Gleason's election as the first female member of the American Concrete Institute. The Institute was particularly impressed with a system that she designed for employing wet concrete on the building site.

One of the first affordable housing projects in the U.S., Concrest attempted to serve the needs of single families who, until then, were paying an inflated rent of $65 a month for four rooms. The dwellings, though modest, incorporated many novel design features—kitchens came with a gas stove, hot and cold running water, laundry facilities, a refrigerator, cabinets, a built-in ironing board, and a cookbook. Other innovations included built-in bookcases, brass woodboxes, draperies, and so on. But the emphasis was always on the cost savings which mass production brought. Gleason noted:

We try here to follow Mr. Leland's methods as closely as possible, by having the stock on the job ahead of time, as needed. On very hot days, or to show our appreciation for necessary overtime, we serve occasional cool drinks or ice cream, and on dismal, cold days, we occasionally serve hot coffee and doughnuts. This is done without any idea of being benevolent.

Gleason was aware that many families could scarcely afford a conventional mortgage. Concrest homes were sold for a small down payment and a $40 a month charge which was structured like a rental payment. By taking over the project, Gleason came close to financial ruin, but in the end her business acumen ensured that the project was a financial success.

After World War I, Gleason traveled to France. Intrigued by the 12th-century village of Septmonts, near Soissons, she soon acquired many of its older buildings, including two historic towers, which she renovated. She would visit Septmonts almost every year until her death. She also began a development at Beaufort, South Carolina, where she rejuvenated the local tourist economy by developing a beach, a golf course, and constructing a low-cost artists' colony. Before her death, several of the units would be completed, and the project would eventually be taken over by her sister, Eleanor Gleason .

During the late 1920s, Kate Gleason traveled to California, where she studied housing design. As a result, she produced plans for the construction of more concrete suburban houses. In Sausalito, Gleason undertook another low-cost housing project. As with other undertakings, she made an effort to cut costs by buying materials in bulk and warehousing them. She also employed low-cost electrical fittings. The Sausalito project was only partially completed, however, when the State government expropriated a portion of the land for the construction of public-works buildings in 1927.

Gift, like genius, I often think only means an infinite capacity for taking pains.

Ellice Hopkins, on Kate Gleason

For many years, Kate Gleason had suffered from hypertension. In 1933, at age 68, she died from pneumonia in Rochester. She was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Rochester, in a service presided over by a Protestant minister who was a friend of the family. Upon her death, Kate Gleason's estate was valued at $1,250,000. Approximately half of the estate went to create the Kate Gleason Fund for educational and charitable causes. Dr. Howard Kelly of Johns Hopkins University received a bequest for his pioneering research into the uses of radium in the fight against cancer. Another bequest went to the city of Rochester, so that it could construct a local history display in the Rochester Public Library in honor of one of Gleason's former high-school instructors. Finally, Gleason's last endowment transformed the Rochester Mechanics Institute into the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Kate Gleason was a pioneer in several fields. She became the first female student to be admitted to the Sibley College of Engineering at Cornell University. She also developed low-cost housing projects in France, California, South Carolina, and New York. On several occasions, she represented the American Society of Mechanical Engineering at international conferences. In 1930, Gleason was appointed special representative of the society at the World Power Conference in Germany.

Kate Gleason managed to decouple the contemporary linkages of patriarchy and technology. Her involvement in real-estate development demonstrated her ability to think systematically about engineering problems. Writes Martha Trescott:

[Women] have displayed not only logical thought but also holistic, or systems thinking. Of course, historically we know of many men in engineering related work, such as George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Frederick Becket, Charles Martin Hall, and Benjamin Lamme, who have been excellent systems thinkers. … Like wise … certain women engineers have also contributed inordinately to concepts of whole, new paradigms, and systems of thought in their fields. Many of these women, such as Ellen Swallow Richards in sanitary and environmental engineering, Edith Clark in electrical power systems, Kate Gleason in mechanical engineering, Emily Roebling in civil engineering, and Lillian Gilbreth in industrial engineering, are familiar names.

But Kate Gleason's forays into the business world also speak of the pioneering role she played as a woman. As with other contemporaries, women such as Gleason sought to break down the barriers which separated the industrial and financial world from women. As Trescott notes, the achievements of such women have too often been ignored or downplayed. Like many of her contemporaries, Gleason was a generalist who sought to apply specialized knowledge to various problems. Writes Lindley:

For many of her friends and associates, Kate Gleason's captivating energy and enthusiasm obscured the fact that she was neither a gifted engineer nor an exceptionally successful entrepreneur. Her devotion to her career was intense, and excluded marriage. Her importance lay in her experimentation with new techniques rather than in the establishment of flourishing enterprises.

Kate Gleason was a talented businesswoman with a keen eye for niche markets. She demonstrated that quality low-cost housing could be constructed and sold to working-class families with an easy payment plan. But Gleason also recognized a growing trend which had escaped the notice of many of her contemporaries: the suburbanization of the American city.

During the interwar period, the suburb offered a new and healthy alternative for urban dwellers. The allure of green spaces, and individual houses linked by street cars to the industrial heart of the city, contrasted sharply with the crowded and unsanitary conditions of the urban tenement. While this was predominately a middle-class experience, Gleason sought to democratize suburbia, making it accessible and affordable for all.

Whatever Kate Gleason undertook, she did so with determination, attention to detail, and remarkable energy. Her capacity for work was one of her strongest attributes, and partially accounts for her success in the male-dominated world of business. That and her ability to conceptualize and present a vision of what she was selling, marked her out as one of the outstanding American entrepreneurs of her era.


Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: W.W. Norton, 1976.

McKelvey, Blake. "Gleason, Kate," in Dictionary of American Biography. Edited by Robert L. Schuyler. NY: Scribner, 1944.

O'Neill, Lois Decker. The Women's Book of World Records and Achievements. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Trescott, Martha Moore. "Women Engineers in History: Profiles in Holism and Persistence," in Women in Scientific and Engineering Professions. Edited by Violet B. Haas and Carolyn C. Perrucci. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

——. "Women in the Intellectual Development of Engineering," in Women in Science. G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

suggested reading:

Lindley, Christopher. "Gleason, Kate," in Notable American Women 1607–1950. Edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1971.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada