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Peter Dreier is a professor of politics at Occidental College in California. In this post, he writes about Katherine Lee Bates, who was the writer of “America the Beautiful.” I first learned the song when I was in public school in Houston. It was a standard at every school celebration or songfest. Later, when I was a student at Wellesley College, I learned that one of the dormitories–Bates Hall–was named for this very illustrious woman.
Listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing “America the Beautiful” at Donald Trump’s inauguration, I couldn’t help thinking about Katharine Lee Bates, the song’s author, who would have been appalled by the sight of Trump taking the oath of office to her most famous creation.
Bates, you see, was a Christian socialist, an ally of labor unions, an advocate for immigrants, a feminist, an ardent foe of imperialism, and a lesbian. A well-respected poet and professor of English at Wellesley College, Bates (1859-1929) was part of progressive reform circles in the Boston area, concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women’s suffrage.
For decades Bates lived with and loved her Wellesley colleague Katharine Coman, founder of the college’s economics department, who authored The History of Contract Labor in the Hawaiian Islands and The Economic History of the Far West. Coman was also a poet. She and Bates jointly wrote English History as Taught by English Poets.
Although they lived together for 25 years in what was then called a “Boston Marriage,” they could not publicly acknowledge their intimate relationship. When Coman died, however, Bates published Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance that celebrated their love and their involvement in the radical and social reform movements of their day.
Were Bates and Coman alive today, they would probably have taken advantage of our current laws allowing same-sex couples to marry — a law that many Trump supporters hope that the Supreme Court will overturn.