Photograph of Katherine Coman, Pach Brothers, New York, University of Michigan student portrait collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan


At 27 years of age, Katherine Ellis Coman was already an author, professor, and the only female of the founding members of the American Economic Association.  Her article, “Some Unsettled Problems with Irrigation,” was the first to be published in March 1911, in the debut issue of what became the American Economic Review (AER).  Throughout her lifetime, she published many influential books, including The Negro Peasant Farmer, Economic Beginnings of the Far West, and The Industrial History of the United States.  The latter was reprinted nine times between 1905-1915 and was often used as a textbook. Because of her many contributions to the world, the University of Michigan named one of the Vera Bates Houses after her in 1967.

On November 23, 1857, Katherine Coman was born to a well-educated family in Newark, Ohio. Her father, a graduate of Hamilton College, held very strong beliefs regarding the proper education of women. In order for his daughter to receive a quality education, Katherine received most of her schooling at home. She eventually followed her brother to the University of Michigan, graduating with a bachelor of Philosophy in 1880.

Ms. Coman shared her father’s opinions about the value of women and education.  She felt that women should be completely incorporated into the university campus, not relegated to teaching classes on hygiene to women only. She even pursued this conviction with the University, striving to convince President James B. Angell to flesh out his faculty by hiring capable women. Although President Angell was not unsympathetic, there was no support for the hiring of women faculty or professors from the Board of Regents, or from the faculty at the time. Only years later, Angell actively sought a woman professor for a new position, dean of women.  When he offered this role to Katherine Coman, who was then professor at Wellesley College, Coman responded, “if the regents…wish to propose a chaperone for students, and propose to dignify that office by allowing the woman who holds it to do a little University teaching,” she was not interested. If, however, the regents accepted women as equal partners and as faculty, and if she were one of several women given proper rank and authority, she would consider it.

After formally refusing the position in 1895, she continued to argue for equality, informing President Angell that the title ‘vice dean” would be better than “dean of women.” By 1900, the University had conferred 144 advanced degrees on women, yet still did not accept women as faculty beyond the most junior level.  Because of the lack of opportunity at the University of Michigan, many of these women would go on to storied careers at other universities and colleges.

Shortly after graduation, President Angell recommended Coman for a rhetoric instructor position at Wellesley College in Boston, Massachusetts. Determined to build a meaningful career, she quickly transferred to the history department where she developed a keen interest in economics. In 1883, Coman offered Wellesley’s first course in political economy. Two years later, she was named full professor of history and economics, teaching classes like “Industrial history of the United States.” In 1899, she founded the department of economics and was also appointed dean of Wellesley College.

At this time, her passion for American industrial history informed her teaching and research choices, eventually leading her to publish multiple books on the subject. The first, “The Industrial History of the United States” was often used as a textbook. In the first revised edition, she added a chapter on the exploitation of natural resources associated with industrialization, believing that the nation’s interest in conserving its natural resources would be short lived. This book continued to be relevant, being republished most recently in 1973.

While serving as an English professor at Wellesley, she met Katharine Lee Bates, with whom she would share a 25 year relationship. Coman and Bates, the future author of “America the Beautiful,” lived and worked together in what was referred to as a “Boston Marriage.” The couple also traveled extensively. When in Europe, she studied the social insurance program, specifically the operation of programs in England, Spain, Denmark and Sweden before her deteriorating health forced her to return to Wellesley. Though she died from breast cancer in January of 1915, her study, “Unemployment Insurance: A Summary of European Systems” was published posthumously later that year.

In addition to her other interests, she was also actively engaged in labor-organizing activities in the south end of Boston. She opened Denison House in 1892 with a small group of educated women who wished to look forward to “a time when there should be no barriers between workers of any kind and the so-called ‘leisure class.’” She was deeply committed to getting immigrant women out of the area’s sweat shops, opening her own tailoring shop as an alternative. Because of Coman’s refusal to pay bribes to the owners of the larger shops, she was forced to close hers after only six weeks. She helped to provide welfare for unemployed women and factory workers, first in Boston, and later in Chicago. In Chicago, she helped to organize the Chicago Garment Workers’ Strike of 1910-11 where mostly female immigrant laborers protested wage cuts and poor working conditions. 

Katherine E. Coman died from breast cancer in January, 1915. She was 57.