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Coman, Katharine (1857–1915) - Economic History

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When Katharine Coman was born on November 23, 1857, in Newark, Ohio, her father, a graduate of Hamilton College and the father of three sons, declared he would show educators how a girl should be educated. Katharine’s mother was a graduate of a female seminary in Ohio, and Katharine was educated mainly at home by her parents. She eventually joined her brother Will at the University of Michigan, which she attended for two years. She taught in Ottawa, Illinois, for two years, then returned to college and graduated in 1880. Coman was hired to teach rhetoric at Wellesley College, then transferred to a professorship in the history department. In 1900 she organized the department of economics. It was at Wellesley that she met Katharine Lee Bates, an English instructor and future author of “America the Beautiful.” The two would live, work, and travel together for the rest of their lives.

Between the years 1886 and 1894, Coman made several trips to England that resulted in a Short History of England for School Use , written with Elizabeth Kendall in 1902. During this time, Coman also became interested in the settlement and labor movements and became a lifelong friend of Jane Addams. Upon her return to the United States, she resided at Hull-House in Chicago. In 1892 she opened Denison House, a center for labor-organizing activities in the South End of Boston. She worked with immigrant women in the Boston sweatshops and organized an “Evening Club for Tailoresses.” She set up a tailoring shop as an alternative to sweatshops, but it failed after six weeks because she refused to pay bribery money to foremen and owners of the larger shops. Coman became president of the electoral board and chairman of the standing committee of the National College Settlements Association in 1900.

During this time Coman published The Industrial History of the United States , which was reprinted nine times between 1905 and 1915. She also became interested in the problems of the American West and had the honor of writing the first article in the new American Economic Review , “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation.” In 1912 she published Economic Beginnings of the Far West , a two-volume study of the history of the economy of the West. That same year, she tripped over a wire and fell, striking her breast heavily. A malignant tumor was found and cancer had spread throughout her system. Meanwhile, Jane Addams had asked her to study the social insurance program in Europe in hopes of initiating similar programs in the United States. Coman studied operations of programs in England, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden before bad health forced her to return to Wellesley. She died there on January 11, 1915. “Unemployment Insurance: A Summary of European Systems” was published posthumously in the same year.

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