Katharine Lee Bates [DRAFT]
Bates, Katharine Lee (b. 12 August 1859; d. 28 March 1929), poet, author and educator. Perhaps best known as the author of the poem “America the Beautiful,” which was later set to music. She was inspired to write the poem while enjoying the view from Pikes Peak in Colorado. Filled with female imagery, “America the Beautiful” symbolized for many the positive and idealistic aspects of America. A movement to adopt the song as the United States national anthem was defeated in 1931 when Congress chose “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, she was the daughter of William Bates, a Congregationalist minister, and Cornelia Frances Lee Bates, a woman educated at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. One of four children, Bates’ parents valued education, and Katharine was their brightest child. Bates received an excellent education at a time when education for women beginning. Educated at Wellesley College, Bates later attended Oxford University in preparation for her Masters degree.
Founded in 1875, Wellesley College was for women. Henry Durant, Wellesley’s founder, firmly believed in women’s abilities, and he only hired female faculty for his women’s college. In 1886 Bates was hired at Wellesley and later became head of the English department. Besides poetry, Bates wrote textbooks, travel books, and children’s books. Among her many publications are: The College Beautiful and Other Poems (1887); English Religious Drama (1893); The Pilgrim Ship (1926); and America the Beautiful and Other Poems (1911).
It was at Wellesley that Bates met Katharine Coman (1857-1915). Coman was a professor of history and political economy. She reorganized the department of economics while at Wellesley and was a published author in her own right. Coman, a social activist, helped found settlement houses, assisted African Americans, immigrants and freehold farmers. Bates and Coman began their relationship in 1890 and lived together for 25 years. Coman died in 1915.
Bates and Coman’s relationship typify the type of female relationships embraced by the upper class and academic America during the nineteenth century. “Romantic friendships” or “Boston marriages” were considered quite normal and even necessary for women. Close, personal, romantic relationships between women were seen as a way to bolster their roles as wives and mothers. The notion of two women having sex in such a relationship was not acknowledged and generally dismissed by nineteenth century society. (The term “lesbian” was not used until the twentieth century.) Other women in “Boston marriages” that were friends of Bates and Coman include Vida Scudder—another member of the Wellesley English department—and Florence Converse, and Jeanette Marks and Mary Emma Woolley. Because so many Wellesley faculty, like Bates and Coman, were in “Boston marriages” the relationships were referred to as “Wellesley marriages” at the college.
Fiction did not ignore “Boston marriages.” Henry James’ novel, The Bostonians (1885), dealt with the two female protagonists entering into such a relationship and being happy. Sadly, one woman opts for a “normal” relationship and marries a man, but James hints at the ending that she will not be happy. James’ own sister Alice was in a “Boston marriage” with history teacher Katharine Loring until her death. Friends of James and Loring, author Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields, were also in a committed relationship. Jewett’s novel Deephaven (1877) dealt with the importance of female relationships.
There is no doubt that Bates and Coman were dedicated to one another spiritually, psychologically and emotionally. Yellow Clover celebrated Bates and Coman’s love and life together, and many of Bates’ letters attest to her intense love of Coman. In one childhood diary entry, Bates admits to liking women better than men, and liking women with full figures better than lean women.
Perhaps the most important point to be made about “Boston marriages” is that the participants were in a monogamous relationship which was a marriage in everything but name. That women could enter into such a living arrangement and become emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, financially—and even sexually—dependent upon each other is amazing considering the narrow roles nineteenth century society defined for women. And these women did it all without needing men. It is speculated that, if living today, many of these couples would identify themselves as lesbians.
Bates retired from teaching in 1925 and became a professor emeritus. She died in 1929. Her Yellow Clover: a Book of Remembrance (1922), a memorial book of 47 sonnets, was dedicated to Coman and privately published after Bates’ death.
Bates and women like her have been reclaimed by lesbian feminists from the pages of history. She is seen as a forebearer to the modern lesbian and gay identity.
See also Literature – 18th and 19th Centuries; Literature – 1890-1969; Colleges and Universities
Michael W. Handis
Burgess, Dorothy. Dream and Deed: the Story of Katharine Lee Bates. Norman: University of Oaklahoma Press, 1952.
Evernden, Margery. “Bates, Katherine Lee (1859-1929).” In Women in World History: a Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Commire. Volume 2: Ba-Brec. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications, 1999.
Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship & Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritians to Playland. Compiled by the History Project. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
The Bates Papers. Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachussetts.
Schwarz, Judith. “Yellow Clover: Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Coman.” Frontiers 4, no. 1 (1979): 59-67.