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The Woman Behind the Scenes

I know, I missed posting on Sunday again! After no power and no internet at the end of the week, I pulled the plug unapologetically, literally, and spent the weekend outside in the garden. It was quite relaxing, rejuvenating, and refreshing. I highly recommend that you try it.

Alas, the internet is back and so am I but I am going back to the garden when I post this!

This week I am going to take a break from sharing the characters in the new book, They Roared, and spotlight some other relatively unknown women. I’ll bring back the characters from They Roared in a few weeks.

A friend sent me this piece about Katherine Wright. I knew her name, but not much about her at all. The article is good, and I wanted to share it here, with you all.

The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, are justifiably famous for their invention of and first successful flight of the airplane, but their sister, Katharine (1874-1929), was an equally important part of the team.

Katharine was the one who paid the bills, made speeches on her brothers’ behalf (they were very reticent and poor public speakers), promoted her brothers and marketed their invention, led tours, met with business contacts and public officials world-wide, managed the family’s bicycle shop, negotiated contracts, nursed her brothers when they were injured, and basically ran their entire business so Wilbur and Orville could get on with what they did best - designing and building flying machines. Oh, and in addition to organizing her brothers’ lives, Katharine also taught high school Latin and organized suffrage marches in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

Kathrine was the youngest of the five surviving children of Milton and Susan Wright. When Susan died of tuberculosis in 1889, Katharine, the only girl, took over the running of the household. She left for a few years to attend Oberlin College, and she was the only one of the five siblings to earn a degree. After graduation, she returned to the family home in Dayton and took up a position teaching Latin in a local high school.

As her siblings, Wilbur and Orville, became more involved in designing, building, and testing flying machines, Katharine took on the organizational aspects of their business. Although the two oldest brothers married and left the home, Katharine, Wilbur, and Orville showed no interest in finding spouses. They seemed bound to remain together and let no one else come between them. Wilbur and Orville never married, and Katharine only married when she was 52 years old. Wilbur had already died, and Orville refused to attend her wedding. He did not speak to her again until she was on her deathbed three years later.

Katharine was a champion of women’s rights and started attending suffrage meetings in Dayton in 1912. In 1914, she arranged a suffrage parade in downtown Dayton that had over 1,300 marchers, including her brothers and her father. She served as President of the Young Women’s League for two years and was also a member of the Dayton Women’s Club and the League of Women Voters. Her husband Henry “Harry” Haskell, whom she married in 1926, shared her opinions about women’s rights. In a letter Katharine wrote to Harry in November 1924, she said “I get all ‘het up’ over living forever in a ‘man’s world... but I know that already having the vote has done a lot toward making men take us seriously.”

When Wilbur and Orville perfected their flying machine, they discovered that the invention was just the first step. Many people didn’t believe it even existed. Witnesses were ignored, and they declared photographs to be fakes. The French government, however, took it seriously, and in 1909, the brothers dismantled a plane, boxed it up, shipped it to France, and then put it back together. They held public demonstrations, and the people of France and throughout Europe went wild for the new invention. Katharine came into her own, arranging meetings and giving speeches in English and French. The brothers worked on the plane, and she became the publicist, and met with dignitaries at parties. The crowds loved her, and so did the newspapers. When the Wrights returned to America, they found they were celebrities.

Katharine continued to take over more and more of the day-to-day operations and the promotional aspects of the business upon their return. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, and their father, Milton died in 1917, leaving Orville increasingly dependent upon Katharine.

Katharine stayed involved in Dayton’s women’s groups and was elected to the Oberlin College’s Board of Trustees. She eventually married in 1926, but died only three years later, of pneumonia, in 1929. Orville lived until 1948, and donated $300,000 (worth several million in today’s money) in honor of his sister, to her Alma Mater, Oberlin.

Denise Hight

Facebook: Historical Photos of Women’s Stories


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