SOCIAL COMMENTS - AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL - written by a lesbian
Among our nation's most famous pieces of poetry is that which underlies the song, "America the Beautiful". On several occasions, it has been proposed to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" as our national anthem. Its author was a young Wellesley College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates.
Almost everbody in this nation knows the words. Few know that she was a lesbian. This is her story.
Bates was born to a poor family in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and later moved to Grantville, near Wellesley. Wellesley was soon to be the home to a new women's college, and attending the school became Katharine's goal in life. She took advanced courses and started teaching at the high school to build up credentials, ultimately becoming accepted into their second graduating class. She excelled in the school, but in no field more than poetry. Her favorite activity was to retire to the Browning room and study the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Three years after graduating as class president, she was accepted to teach English at Wellesley.
In 1893, at age 33 and now English department chair, Bates took a train ride from Wellesley, Massachusetts to Colorado Springs, Colorado to teach a summer school session at Colorado College. She marvelled at the countryside as she travelled.
At this time, Bates was already a prolific poet (much of her poetry published under a male pseudonym -- "James Lincoln" -- to increase its audience). The beauty of the view from atop Pike's Peak inspired her most famous work, "America the Beautiful". She left Colorado springs with the notes for all four stanzas, but the poem itself was not published until in 1895 in The Congregationalist.
The poem was very well received. A series of revisions would later see it published in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904, leading to growing national fame. In 1920, a contest was established to set the poem to music, and the rest, as we say, is history.
You will find all of this in your average biography of Bates. The only thing that they often leave out, however, is the single most important thing to her in her life: her partner, Katharine Coman. Until recently, in most histories of "America The Beautiful" and its author, Coman was written out of nearly every scene in Bates' life.
Bates became close to Coman at Wellesley, where Coman was a professor of History. It was Coman herself who appointed Bates to her position. They started becoming close in 1887, and in 1890, they moved in together in what was then known as a "Boston Marriage".
They lived the American dream together. They bought a small home that they nicknamed "Scarab", got a collie who they named "Sigurd", and an early automobile which they named "Abraham". Whenever they parted, they wrote almost daily love letters to each other:
While "the two Katharines" lived in Massachusetts, their hearts remained with the American west. Coman wrote some of the first works on the economy of the old west, including "Economic Beginnings of the Far West". They took every opportunity to travel west together, including Bates' fateful 1893 trip to Pike's Peak. Along the way they had stopped in Chicago to visit a newly-built monument to women's accomplishments in the arts and sciences, and admired statues of women's rights pioneers such as Susan B. Anthony.
The two also had another devout committment: that to equal rights for the poor. They cofounded the College Settlements Association in 1887, a program which helped send female graduates to spend time among the European poor arriving on America's shores. In 1892, Coman helped open Denison House in Boston, which became a center of labor organization in the United States. Coman sided with the workers during the 1894 Pullman strike, and travelled to Chicago in 1910 to help striking seamstresses win union rights. She began writing another work on a then radical topic: "Unemployment Insurance: A Summary of European Systems".
And then disaster struck: Katharine Coman developed breast cancer.
Coman's death in 1915 was an event that Bates would never recover from. Even nearly a decade later, she wrote to a friend:
Bates began work shortly after Coman died on a long volume of poetry, titled "Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance, to Katharine Coman". Despite Bates' growing popularity from "America The Beautiful", the sad, longing poems of Yellow Clover proved unpopular, and the book fell into obscurity.
The title of the book was a reference to a memory that the two of them shared:
On March 28th, 1929, at the age of 69, Bates died in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She helped develop a sense of pastoral patriotism within our growing nation and left us with one of the most memorable pieces of poetry. She nurtured the growing women's rights and labor movements.
Let us honor her memory by not writing away from history that which mattered to her the most
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