Katharine Coman: America's First Woman Institutional Economist and a Champion of Education for Citizenship

By Vaughn, Gerald F. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Katharine Coman: America's First Woman Institutional Economist and a Champion of Education for Citizenship


Vaughn, Gerald F., Journal of Economic Issues


Who was the only woman among the American Economic Association founders in September 1885? Who, in the early 1890s, became the first American woman professor of statistics? Who authored, in 1905, the first major industrial history of the United States and, in 1912, a classic study of settlement of the Far West? Who wrote the first article in the American Economic Review when the journal was started in 1911?

The answer: America's first woman institutional economist, Katharine Ellis Coman (1857-1915), not yet 28 years old at the AEA's founding but already full professor of history and economics at Wellesley College, possessed of philosophic mind, a champion of education for citizenship, active in labor and other social reform movements, and an exemplar for women's cultural advancement. Recalling her student years at the University of Michigan, when women were a tiny minority, she avowed, "We knew that we were ranked by our achievements and became filly convinced of the necessity for sincere and honest work" (1903, 362).

This article focuses on one highlight of Coman's far-reaching career: she was foremost an industrial historian, a pace-setter in asking the most relevant questions about industrial history and the processes of institutional change. Working in a profession then dominated almost exclusively by men, she became an admirable role model for all institutional economists and especially for the women who have followed her lead. Coman provided a continuingly relevant approach for institutional economists who work on problems of public policy, an approach too often neglected that needs to be revisited.

Influences on Coman's Thought

What were the major influences on Coman's thought about how to study institutional change? What is their current meaning and value?

Coman's approach originated when she took several of the courses in history taught by Professor Charles Kendall Adams and colleagues at the University of Michigan, where she received her Bachelor of Philosophy degree in 1880. Adams was a product of the German historical school. At the founding of the American Economic Association in 1885, Adams (by then president of Cornell University) was present and strongly supported formation of the AEA. He believed that "economic science must be studied in the Fight of history, inasmuch as experience has shown that many of its doctrines must be regarded, not as truths of universal application, but simply as truths to be adapted to the changing conditions of human development.... Thus the course of history has compelled economists to modify some of their beliefs, and, consequently, how far their beliefs are subject to still further modification is a legitimate subject of inquiry." He supposed such inquiry "to be one of the must prominent objects of the new organization" (1886, 25).

Coman took a broad, dispassionate, yet philosophical, view of history, and she regarded the practical study of history as "the record of man's effort in the past to solve those political, social, and economic problems which are the subjects of deepest thought today.... The continuity of history as the record of the progressive life of mankind is made manifest, and the experience of the past is shown to be vital in every part and full of suggestion for the present and the future of the human race" (1890, 343-344).

During Coman's period of study at Michigan, the university president was James Burrill Angell. Nearly a quarter century after graduating, Coman fondly wrote, "First in our regard stood President Angell, our steady champion and trusted adviser" (1903, 361). Angell was a foremost authority on international law and diplomacy; he also taught an elementary course (and sometimes an advanced course) in political economy. Coman took Angell's course in international law and also his elementary political economy. Coman's formal training in economics as a field of study therefore was minimal but sufficient to stimulate her further interest. …

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