Katherine Bement Davis was born in Buffalo, New York on January 15, 1860 to Oscar and Frances Freeman Davis. Her mother was a strong proponent of women’s rights and a zealous advocate for women’s suffrage. Katherine and her family lived in Dunkirk for most of her childhood until she was 17 when they then moved to Rochester, N.Y.
In 1879, Katherine graduated from Rochester Free Academy and returned to Dunkirk to teach at Dunkirk Academy. While at Dunkirk Academy, she established a women’s equality club and led a women’s literacy group. She taught chemistry for ten years in Dunkirk before finally saving enough money to continue her schooling.
In 1890, Katherine enrolled in Vassar College. After graduating from Vassar, she continued her studies at Columbia University’s Barnard College and also taught at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls in New York City.
While studying at Barnard, Katherine managed a project to develop a model home for a display at the Chicago World Fair. As a result of its success, she was offered a job running a settlement house in Philadelphia. There, she worked with Pennsylvania University and the Wharton School to do groundbreaking research of blacks in urban America.
After Philadelphia, Katherine studied at Chicago University where she became the first female Fellow in Political Science-Economics to earn a Ph.D. In 1901, she became the first superintendent of the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills. Her work there lead to groundbreaking reforms in the female prison system.
As a result of her work at Bedford Hills, Katherine became head of the Correction Commission in 1914, making her the first woman to lead an agency in New York City. She was also 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.
In 1918, Katherine became the head of the Bureau of Social Hygiene and arranged for ground-breaking research on women’s sexuality. She remained at the post until retirment in 1927. In February 1928, the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom was filled with Progressive Era reformers to honor Davis at a testimonial dinner. The guests including Eleanor Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller Jr. The Panama-Pacific Exposition also designated her one of the three most distinguished women in America.
In 1928, Katherine Davis retired to California with her sisters. She died on December 10, 1935 at the age of 65.
Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit www.McClurgMuseum.org or contact your local historical society.