by Judd Proctor and Brian Burns
Katharine Lee Bates was born Aug. 12, 1859, on Cape Cod in Falmouth, Mass., to William and Cornelia Frances Lee Bates. Known as Katie early on, things would not be easy from the start. Her father, a pastor of the First Congregational Church, was too sick to officiate or attend her baptism and died just six days afterward. This prompted her mother to take on odd jobs to support her four children. Bates’ brothers even went to work to support the family.
Bates’ interest in writing started early in life. By age 6, she started keeping a diary, her first being a tiny red leather notebook with the notation “DIARY 1866” in gold. At age 9, one entry stated, “I like women better than men,” and “Sewing is always expected of girls. Why not boys?”
Bates’ family valued education. Her mother graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and her grandfather had been president of Middlebury College. She too would be well educated.
Just before she turned 12, the family moved to Graniteville, Mass., just outside Boston, where Bates would attend Wellesley High School, graduating in 1874. Bates would also graduate from the more-advanced Newton High School two years later.
That same year, in 1878, at age 17, Bates began her long association with Wellesley College, entering with 43 other girls in the class of “’80.” She would be president of her class, the second to graduate from Wellesley. At the time, it was a bold move, as women were considered not bright enough to tackle the rigors of academic life. But Bates craved it.
Bates gained a superb education at Wellesley and became grounded in her studies. Her poetry writing began to flourish with her first poem, “Sleep,” published in The Atlantic Monthly during her undergraduate years there.
After receiving her B.A. from Wellesley College in 1880, Bates entered her career as a teacher, with a stint at nearby Natick High School and then Dana Hall Preparatory School. Her big break came in 1885, when she was invited back to Wellesley College to join the English department. Thus began her 40-year legacy at her old alma mater.
During her time at Wellesley, Bates became a prolific author of travel books, volumes of poetry and children’s books.
Today she is credited with popularizing the notion that Santa Claus had a wife in the book “Goody Santa Claus On A Sleigh Ride.” Before then, Bishop St. Nicholas was unmarried and later transformed into a secular Santa Claus in the 1820s.
Written as a long poem in 1889, the book depicts Mrs. Claus as wanting to accompany Santa on his Christmas Eve trip to deliver his toys to all the girls and boys — not a stay-at-home wife. Instead, Santa’s wife takes a feminist stance, demanding credit for her hard work in making Christmas possible, including cooking for Santa.
Like her creator Bates, this Mrs. Claus would stand up for herself and beg the same question: Why can’t women do the same work as men?
During her Wellesley years, Bates took trips abroad for sabbaticals and summers off. But it would be her cross-country train trip to Colorado Springs in 1893 — she’d been asked to teach a summer session at Colorado College — that would spark her best-known poem, “America the Beautiful.”
The trip was a long one with picturesque views through her train coach window. Passing through Massachusetts and then to New York, there was a brief stop at one of the continent’s most famous attractions, Niagara Falls. Then it was off to Chicago where Bates would have a weekend stopover at the family home of Katharine Coman, professor of economics and history at Wellesley. The two had met in 1887, and would live together for more than a quarter of a century in what was then known as a “Boston marriage.”
While in Chicago, they toured what Bates in her diary called “The Fair” — the World’s Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. The view of what was described as the “White City” impressed Bates.
From Chicago, on July 3, 1893, both Katharines boarded a train bound for their summer classes in Colorado, passing fields of wheat as they traveled west through Kansas and on to Colorado Springs. They would together view the Rocky Mountains for the first time.
At Colorado College for three weeks, the two instructors toured the area in their free time. It was on Saturday, July 22, 1893, that Bates experienced her most exciting excursion. A group of instructors traveled to the top of the mountain that loomed over the town below. At 14,110 feet above sea level, Pike’s Peak, while not the tallest in the Rocky Mountain range, commanded the best view for miles around.
The group went by horse-drawn wagon, which included the sign “Pikes Peak or Bust!” Bates described the experience this way, “One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pike’s 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.”
Inspired by the majestic view, Bates wrote some verses in her notebook — the start of “America the Beautiful.”
It would not be until Bates’ return to Wellesley College that she would polish up her verses from Colorado. Her first version of “America the Beautiful” appeared in the Congregationalist on July 4, 1895. While many tunes, including “Auld Lang Sein,” were matched to the poem’s words and meter, the one that stuck was “Marterna,” written by American organist and composer Samuel Ward in 1882. Known as “the other national anthem,” Bates’ ode has touched so many lives “from sea to shining sea.”
Both Bates and Coman had successful careers at Wellesley College. After graduating as a student, Bates later chaired the English department, and Coman chaired the economics department and was dean of the college. Their relationship grew over the years until they soon considered themselves bound as one. Their friendships included other female couples at the college known as “Wellesley marriages.”
While today she’s less well-known than her partner, Coman was ahead of her time as the first woman institutional economist, writing books and articles on the topic.
Coman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1912. After surgery, Bates cared for her, even installing an elevator in their home to aid her partner in getting to her office on the third floor of their house near the college.
Coman died on Jan. 11, 1915, at age 57. Bates expressed her grief to a friend saying, “So much of me died with Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.”
Bates also wrote of their relationship in a volume of poetry published in 1922 entitled “Yellow Clover, A Book of Remembrance.” The poem took its name from the little yellow flowers each had pressed into the letters they wrote to each other when apart.
Bates continued at Wellesley until 1925. During her final years, she continued to write and review the works of others. She died on March 28, 1929, upon which the flag at Tower Court at Wellesley was flown at half-staff. The local newspaper The Townsman printed this in her obituary:
“The death of Katherine Lee Bates means the passing away of one of the most notable citizens of Wellesley, one of the most important figures connected with Wellesley College, and much more than that, a considerable author and creative influence in the whole of American life.”
Judd Proctor and Brian Burns host “The Rainbow Minute,” a radio show devoted to LGBT history and culture founded in 2006. Proctor is a retired elementary school teacher and staunch gay activist. Burns is an author and horticulturalist. The couple resides in Richmond, Va.