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Women's Rights Advocate

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting Women’s constitutional right to vote. I am always on the lookout for little known women who fought so tirelessly for this right. I also applaud the League of Women Voters as often as possible, for their work. The League of Women Voters was founded by Carrie Chapman Catt in 1920 during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The convention was held just six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote after a 72-year struggle. Lest we forget, it was a struggle. Please use your right to vote, and do just that, VOTE.

This month I highlight Katharine Bement Davis sho was born in Buffalo, New York, on January 15, 1860. She was the oldest of five children, three girls and two boys, and Katharine’s mother Frances was a fierce proponent of women’s rights and zealous in her advocacy for women’s suffrage. They lived in Dunkirk, New York after her birth. Her parents were very active in community organizations.

In 1897, Katharine graduated from Rochester Free Academy which was a public high school in Rochester, N.Y., where the family was now living. The family was unable to afford college tuition for her so she accepted a teaching position at Dunkirk Academy where she established a women’s equality club and taught a women’s literacy group.

After teaching chemistry for ten years she had saved enough to continue her education and enrolled in 1890 at Vassar which was a center of progressive education for women. Her interests in science and social reform gave her the opportunity to work in public health when she graduated.

After graduation she continued her studies at Columbia University at Barnard College which, remembering the time, was a separate women’s college. She also taught at Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls.

During her time at Barnard, she managed a project to develop a model home for the New York State display at the Chicago World Fair. Shortly after that she was offered a job managing a settlement house in Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia, Davis worked with W. E. B. Du Bois, who was then at the University of Pennsylvania conducting groundbreaking research on blacks in urban America.

In the spring of 1901, Davis was appointed superintendent at the New Bedford Hills State Reformatory for Women, housing 42 inmates. By 1909 Davis was noticing that there were a significant number of inmates exhibiting serious mental problems. She arranged for psychological testing and promoted judicial education, including pre-sentencing background and evaluations. The Prison Association of New York recognized the reforms that Davis made at Bedford Hills saying that "the reformatory is becoming perhaps the most scientific institution of its kind in the world."

John Purroy Mitchel was the mayor at the time and found great merit in her reform efforts. He appointed Davis to Heat the Correction Commission on January 1, 1914. She was the first woman to lead an agency in New York City. Based on her relationship with Mitchel and his associates, Davis was on the Progressive party's 1914 slate for State Constitutional Convention seat, making her the first woman to run for a New York statewide office on a major party ticket, another bold move.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. established the Bureau of Social Hygiene in New York City in 1913, for "the study, amelioration, and prevention of those social conditions, crimes, and diseases which adversely affect the well-being of society, with special reference to prostitution and the evils associated therewith.” The Bureau's work was influenced by the view that there was a biological basis for crime. During the Bureau's early years the main focus was on prostitution, vice, and political corruption. During later years, the Bureau shifted its emphasis towards criminology and the control of crime. In 1918 Katharine became the head of the Bureau. While there she did ground breaking research on women’s sexuality. She was also a eugenicist and served on a U.S. Advisory Council on Eugenics.

She retired in 1928 and there was a testimonial dinner in her honor. The guests included Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, Walter Lippmann, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Lillian Wald, Felix Warburg, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick and Judge William McAdoo.

Davis was honored numerous times by a variety of organizations. The Panama-Pacific Exposition designated her one of the three most distinguished women in America. Davis received honorary degrees from Mount Holyoke College, Western Reserve and Yale universities.

In 1922, the League of Women Voters named her one of the twelve greatest living Americans of her sex, contributing greatly to prison and social reform.

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