Katharine Coman: America's first woman institutional economist and a champion of education for citizenship.

AuthorVaughn, Gerald F.

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. Angell was visionary, attuned to the advances of inductive thinking by the German historical school, and could see the implications for inductive studies of economic institutions.

Political economy received greater emphasis at the University of Michigan when Angell named economist Henry Carter Adams to teach the subject and much expanded the course offerings after Coman graduated. Coman was most interested in solving practical economic problems and never became much of an economic theorist. Incidentally, Adams was rather likeminded, and A. W. Coats noted an 1897 letter from H. C. Adams (president of the American Economic Association) to Coman in which Adams was skeptical of recent tendencies in economic theory (1960, 569, fn 28).

Following Coman's graduation from Michigan, Wellesley College, a leading women's college, employed her upon Angell's recommendation. At Wellesley Coman taught briefly as instructor in rhetoric and then in 1881 was appointed instructor in history. Her exceptional capabilities as a teacher were obvious, and in 1883 she was named full professor of history.

The 1870s and 1880s was a period of enormous economic and social upheaval in America, due mainly to the rise of huge and powerful industrial corporations that increased economic efficiency but threatened equality of economic opportunity. Yet most people did not seem to grasp the historic change. Coman recalled discussions with her male student friends at the University of Michigan when "we talked out in frankest camaraderie problems of politics, philosophy, literature, and science" (1903, 362) but not economics explicitly. Coman became steadily more convinced that economics should be taught at Wellesley, and with the support of her administrators she offered Wellesley's first course in political economy in 1883. In 1885 she was named full professor of history and economics. As her faculty colleague Emily Greene Balch later wrote, "it was the economic aspects of history, and the practical and historical aspects of economics, that most interested her" (1915, 21).

Thus in September 1885, when the founding members met to organize the American Economic Association, it is remarkable that the only woman among them had not reached her twenty-eighth birthday, held only a bachelor's degree with but little training in economics, yet had attained full professor of history and economics at Wellesley College. It appears that Coman's stature and reputation as a teacher at Wellesley resonated far outside the bounds of her Massachusetts campus. One of her students (unnamed) of the late 1880s wrote her these words quoted in the Wellesley College News after Coman died:

The course in Political Economy which I was so wise as to take with you has proved of vital importance to me. That was in 1887-8, but as I look back, I see that in your teaching then, you presented to us the ideas, the concepts, which are now accepted principles of men's thought as to the relation of class to class, of man to man. And so I feel that it was to your enthusiasm, your power of inspiring your pupils that I owe my own interest in economic and sociological affairs. ("The Teacher" 1915, 30) In her formative years as an economist, Coman was clearly most influenced by the political economy and social philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Teaching economics at Wellesley, she stated, "The first semester is devoted to the study of economic theory, mainly in its presentation by John Stuart Mill, but no one author is relied upon as an exclusive authority.... The history of economic science in its development, and the conflict of the schools form subjects of special investigation at the close of the first semester's work" (1890, 346).

Mill remained Coman's main influence in economic theory. However, in her Outline Study of Economic Theory (1893a), she made notable though subordinate use of Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics (1890) and Francis A. Walker's Political Economy (1883). Mill, Marshall, and Walker all were moving away from classical economics, in varying degrees, toward a blend of neoclassical and institutional economics.

A striking illustration of Mill's dominant influence comes from Coman's Outline Study of Economic Theory, in which she invited readers to refer to Mill's Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, People's Edition, vol. 1, book 3, and therein:

Note Mill's three classes of commodities:-

  1. Those reproduced without increase of cost.

  2. Those reproduced with increase of cost.

  3. Those that cannot be reproduced. (1893a, 9)

In vol. 1, book 3, we find regarding class b that Mill wrote, "There are commodities which can be multiplied to an indefinite extent by labour and expenditure, but not by a fixed amount of labour and expenditure. Only a limited quantity can be produced at a given cost; if more is wanted, it must be produced at a greater cost. To this class, as...

To continue reading

Request your trial