Katharine Lee Bates

My interest in finding women heroes continues unabated.  Recently I was reminded about Katharine Lee Bates and thought I would share a bit of her life with you. She was born on August 12, 1859 on Cape Cod in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Bates died in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on September 28, 1929, and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery at Falmouth.  She lived just 69 years, but what a 69 years they were.

Katharine Lee Bates is best known for the song, “America the Beautiful,” but she was also an accomplished author and educator. She also popularized “Mrs. Santa Claus” through her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride (1889).

She graduated from Wellesley College with a B.A. in 1880. In 1888 she returned to Wellesley as a member of the faculty, first as an English instructor, later to become the head of the English Department.

In 1893 Bates spent part of the summer in Colorado where she lectured at Colorado College. During her visit, she went on a hike to Pikes Peak. Later she remembered:

“One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.” That view inspired her to write “America the Beautiful” her most famous poem. She quickly wrote the first draft in a notebook she had with her on the trip.  “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind,” she later said, according to the Library of Congress web page on “America the Beautiful.”

Bates’ teaching career was the central interest of her adult life. She believed that through literature, human values could be revealed and developed. She wrote for popular magazines to supplement her income and was quite prolific. She was also involved in social reform activities, working for labor reform and planning the College Settlements Association with Vida Scudder. Over the years, she became an accomplished academic and a respected scholar of English literature. She retired from Wellesley in 1925.

Bates never married. But for 25 years she lived with Katharine Coman, who was a history and political economy teacher and founder of the Wellesley College School Economics department. Bates and Coman until Coman’s death in 1915.

In 1910, when a colleague described “free-flying spinsters” as “fringe on the garment of life”, Bates answered: “I always thought the fringe had the best of it. I don’t think I mind not being woven in.”

Of course some of us describe the couple as lesbians citing as an example Bates’ 1891 letter to Coman: “It was never very possible to leave Wellesley [for good], because so many love-anchors held me there, and it seemed least of all possible when I had just found the long-desired way to your dearest heart…Of course I want to come to you, very much as I want to come to Heaven.” Others people will contest the use of the term lesbian to describe what they see as a “Boston marriage”.  Those who contest the use of the word lesbian say that we cannot know the sexual activities of a couple. Maybe so. But to be a lesbian is not only about sex. We do know that Bates and Coman live together for 25 years. After Coman died, Bates said, “So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.” We know that they were intellectually deeply engaged with each other, that their letters and Bates poems expressed love between them.  For me that is enough. As I have often said to my life partner, I always assume the best of everyone I meet. I always assume everyone I meet is lesbian or gay. And I can count on heterosexual to declare their heterosexuality within the first 5 minutes of conversation. Given these threads of evidence about the relationship between Bates and Coman, I will continue to assume the best about them and will believe that they were women who loved women and were lesbians who lived together for 25 years.

In 1922, seven years after Coman’s death Bates published Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance, a collection of poems written “to or about my Friend” Katharine Coman, some of which had been published in Coman’s lifetime.

So, the next time you find yourself singing “oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain  . . .” do remember that it was written by Katharine Lee Bates of Cape Cod, a professor of English, and the life partner of Katharine Coman.


If you find yourself on Cape Cod, be sure to stop by the town of Falmouth were the Bates family home on Main Street is preserved by the Falmouth Historical Society.