Correction's Katharine Bement Davis:
New York City's Suffragist Commissioner

-- 1st Female Fellow in Poli-Eco to Earn Chicago U. Ph.D --

Veblen Portrait

Thorstein Veblen, the social critic who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption," was Katharine's favorite CU professor who became and remained a friend. (This photo is the identifying graphic for the home page of the campus - wide information system at Carleton College, Minnesota, Veblen's alma mater. Its use here is through courtesy of Mark F. Heiman, Information Coordinator, Academic Computing and Networking Services, Carleton College, Northfield, MN.)


Among Katharine' Chicago University sociology professors was George Vincent who would come to play a pivotal role in Davis' life later on when he headed the Rockefeller Foundation. He was the son of American Methodist Episcopal bishop John Heyl Vincent, founder of a major movement in adult education that began in 1874 at Chautauqua Lake near Dunkirk, N.Y., where Oscar Davis was raising his family. The Chautauqua Movement began as a summer training program for Sunday school teachers. It evolved into a traveling lecture series and summer school. The Chautauqua concept inspired similar summer schools and extension lectures, secular as well as religious. Dunkirk school leader Oscar Davis became a supporter of a summer school program for his community.

In 1882 at the Chautauqua Institute, William Rainey Harper, professor of Hebrew at the Baptist Union Theological Seminary, Chicago, developed correspondence home-study lessons that he evolved into an extension learning program at CU when he became its first president. The charter for the otherwise nonsectarian university -- as founded by John D. Rockefeller in the early 1890s -- required that one trustee be from the Baptist Theological Union.

While living on the CU campus, Katharine stayed at Foster Hall headed by Myrna Reynolds, who had been in Vassar's English Department when Davis attended. Foster was the CU residence for women students, any age and at any educational stage. Katharine, then 37, found "this mixture made it very jolly and kept us all young." Davis had selected political economy as her major and sociology, her minor. She later recalled, tongue in cheek, "There were a number of women students in [the sociology] department, but I was alone in my glory in political economy."

Actually her reception in that department was less than glorious. Aware of her Settlement work in the reform spirit of Octavia Hill and other British Christian Socialists, the department chairman J. Laurence Laughlin suspected Davis of being some kind of radical or socialist herself. He was forever finding and announcing evidence of this supposed leaning in her classroom remarks or in her study papers. He'd proclaim: "There it sticks up its head!"

Davis and Veblen

Initially, the male political ecomonics majors made no move to welcome this first female Fellow in the department. "I had rather understood that they had not favored the innovation of a woman in the department," KBD would recall more than a quarter century later. She studied in the poli-eco department library off by herself rather than enter uninvited into the adjacent seminar room they used as a study. But one day one of them, Herbert Davenport, later a Cornell professor, came out to her. He suggested she bring her work into the room and join them. "I did," she recalled, "and from then on, I had a beautiful time; there were some awfully nice boys there then."

She thought one of the professors awfully nice too -- Thorstein Veblen, the social critic and author of The Theory of the Leisure Class in which he coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption." While not a "boy," he was only three years older than Davis. They became "great friends." Because she thought of him as "rather shy of women," she felt "flattered" by their friendship and "persuaded him to come to Foster Hall occasionally to meals or to the various simpler functions." Her reminiscences generously made no mention of Veblen's extramarital affairs that cost his jobs at CU and later Stanford. She remained a friend and supporter throughout his brilliant but erratic career. Moody and enigmatic, his satirizing economic and political institutions of his day exposed need for greater government involvement and influenced Progressive Era and New Deal reformers.

Veblen was the CU professor from whom Katharine "got the most . . . He was sympathetic and made one think . . .He was the only man in the world that the trustees would dare permit to lecture on socialism, because no one knew when he got through which side he was on . . We used to have great arguments about the use of words. I though he used too many long words . . . But I was always in favor of words of one syllable." In an obvious reference to her work as Bedford Hills warden and city jails Commissioner, Davis said her penchant for short words "was fortunate" because "in my later career it was often necessary that I be able to made myself easily understood."

Research in Bohemia

As part of her CU graduate work, she studied at the Universities of Berlin and Vienna, supported by a New England Women's Educational Association fellowship. Davis' academic performance at Vassar, Barnard and elsewhere certainly warranted her being awarded the scholarship. But her "connection" with the College Settlement Association (CSA) and with Vassar Prof. Lucy Salmon, friend of Alice Freeman Palmer, could not have hurt either. Palmer was a national leader of the Women's Education Association (WEA). Most of the colleges represented in CSA were also represented in the New England WEA.

Davis' dissertation research focused on the economic factors impacting farm workers in Bohemia and those who immigrated to Chicago. Bohemia, now the western-most part of the Czech Republic, is a plateau whose principal rivers include the Vltava, better known to music lovers by its German name, the Moldau, title of the famed symphonic poem by Bohemian-born composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-84). A much earlier Bohemian, John Huss, stands in history as arguably the first Protestant leader a century before Martin Luther. Huss' burning at the stake in 1415 ignited war for two decades in central Europe. Hussites were particularly strong in Bohemia and neighboring Moravia. The religion known in America as the Moravian Church traces its roots back to the Bohemian Brotherhood as the Hussites had come to be known. So do Salem College in N.C. and Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa.

Agriculture was one of Bohemia’s basic economic pursuits, the chief crops being wheat, rye, and hops. At the time Davis studied the Bohemian farmers both Bohemia and Moravia were mere provinces in the Habsburg Empire.

Rejected Racist View

Davis rejected the arrogant racist view of some Americans that the poverty endured by the Czech peasants and immigrants flowed from in-bred dull-wittedness. She detailed how the "greed' of feudal landowners imposed exploitive child labor and other inhumane working conditions on the peasants, stunting their development, the effects of which lingered long after the formal abolition of servitude.

Katharine, who had a facility for foreign tongues, spoke, read and understood a number of European languages. During her research, she lived with a Bohemia farm family. Her direct interviews of farm workers and landowners in Bohemia and the immigrants in Chicago; her on-the-scene gathering of statistics; her review of the original hand-written ledgers, account books and public records were groundbreaking techniques in her field at the time. Her readiness to live among the people whose economic conditions she was studying can be seen as an extension of the readiness she had to live among the people of the seventh ward whose needs she sought to serve through Settlement work. Her experiences with the Russian immigrants in Philadelphia helped her relate to the Slavic farmers and immigrants.

On her return to CU, Katharine's fellow Fellows teased, "We know where you have been this past year." German, Austrian and Czech food had added 20 pounds, she ruefully recalled.

In Endless Crusade, Dr. Ellen Fitzgerald writes:

As dean of women, Marion Talbot began to get a good idea of what was in store as Chicago's first female Ph.D.s approached graduation. Katharine Bement Davis was the first of the four women [Davis, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Edith Abbott and Frances Kellor] to complete her doctoral degree. She received her doctorate in political economy cum laude in June of 1900 at the age of forty.
To the social reform impulse she had brought with her from the St. Mary's Street Settlement, CU had added the discipline and credentials of a social scientist. That summer, "Doctor" Davis served as head of Foster Hall and prepared for her next career move. It came in the form of a New York State Civil Service examination.

*Copyright © 1997 by Thomas C. McCarthy and the New York City Department of Correction. All rights reserved.