On January 1, 1914, Vassar alumna Dr. Katharine Bement Davis became New York City’s first female Correction Commissioner. She was the first woman to head a uniformed agency, and one of the first women to head a major bureaucratic organization in the United States.
Davis was born in Buffalo, N. Y. on January 15, 1860. She enrolled in Vassar as a junior, spending two years at the College in total. Her classmate, Amy Reed ’92, described her disposition while at school as follows:
She stated with unassuming frankness that she was thirty years old and “had taught” to earn money for a college education. Moreover she joined in our most childlike amusements with zest and humor and responded to any friendly advance with such good will that she rapidly became “one of us.”
Davis graduated from Vassar in 1892, and spent the next summer hosting an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair. She ran a “Workingman’s Model Home” as part of the New York State exhibit, depicting a family of five were living on an income of $500. Davis explained to passersby “that you could feed a workingman’s family on fifty-four cents a day but that it was a grave question whether you ought to do so.” The next year, Davis continued studying at Barnard College, and later earned a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago in 1901. Though her degree was in economics, Davis described herself as a “criminologist” and “penologist.” Mt. Holyoke College, on its 75th anniversary, conferred upon her an honorary doctorate of laws. While working on her Ph.D., she was employed at and eventually headed College Settlement House. Speaking on her time at the settlement house, Davis noted,
First through the children, then through the mothers, then through the young people and the men, we got to know our neighbors. We made a careful study of the physical aspects of a particular district. I can remember how we studied the map, block by block, learning the location of all the public buildings, the charitable agencies, the schools, the saloons, the disorderly houses; in short, we knew, in some instances better than the police, what each house represented.
She would later describe some of the graphic scenes she saw when working there: a woman being fatally stabbed, frequent domestic abuse caused by drunkenness, hundreds of residents crowded into small tenements.
Prior to serving as Correction Commissioner, Davis had spent 13 years as the Superintendent of the Reformatory for Women at Bedford, since the prison’s opening. She was granted the position after receiving the highest score on the competitive civil service exam. Davis established the Bedford Reformatory as a place where female prisoners could be studied in order to determine how they developed criminal tendencies.
Davis’ appointment as Correction Commissioner instantly gained her nationwide fame. In an interview upon gaining the position, Davis said, “Everyone knows New York’s prison institutions to be little better than medieval. Of course I hope to bring them up to something nearer to the highest modern standard.” The New York Times wrote “the appointment of a woman to the place which she now occupies came as a surprise to many, but she is very hopeful of success.” New York City mayor John Mitchel, considered a reformer, lauded her “training, experience, and point of view,” while suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt called her a woman with real “star quality.” Throughout her tenure as Correction Commissioner, Davis was active in the suffrage movement, “regularly speaking at women’s rights rallies after she had completed her day’s work.”
Soon after Davis’ appointment, the Progressive Party sought her as a candidate for the office of delegate-at-large to the state constitutional convention. Davis accepted, and became the first woman to run for statewide office in New York. Despite an endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt, Davis narrowly lost the election, but gladly remained as Correction Commissioner for a total of two years, after which she resigned.
Her tenure as Correction Commissioner is known for its resolution of the “backward and corrupt” running of New York City’s prisons, as well as the reduction of drug trafficking among inmates. She also opposed racial segregation in prisons, although this was not abolished over the course of her tenure. The highlight of her career was resolving a three-day prison revolt on Blackwell’s Island, in which “she finally talked them into an agreement so complete that they cheered the Commissioner departing victorious.”
Her next position was also in the New York City government: she served as Chairman of the New Parole Commission, a prestigious but less-involved job than Corrections Commissioner. In 1916, she created the city’s first parole commission. When the United States entered World War I, she wrote articles insisting that the country must focus on preventing the spread of venereal diseases in the army, stating “We must keep our soldiers interested and amused and happy and we are able to do this because we have at our disposal the best men and women of the country,” and that the country must not let these diseases, which were more common in the civilian community, infect the army. She felt that this was a woman’s responsibility: “The women of the country are asked to see that the vice laws in their own cities and towns are carried out to their fullest extent.”
The final ten years of career were spent as the Secretary of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, a “privately financed research organization having international as well as national implications.” Much of this private financing came from the Rockefeller family. While at the Bureau of Social Hygiene, Davis authored one of her most famous papers, “An Experimental Study of Psychopathic Delinquent Women.”
After leaving a career of social service, Davis wrote A Study of Auto-Erotic Practices, a book on the sex life of women of “respectable” social standing. She had surveyed 2,200 women on their sexual habits throughout her time at the Bureau of Social Hygiene. This book “took a long step forward in the slow movement towards birth control and better social hygiene,” even though it “outraged many deep-seated prejudices and…opened the floodgates of unpleasant publicity.” Throughout her life, Davis had published essays and even dabbled in fiction, but this was her first book to receive national attention. Despite the fact that her willingness to discuss female sexuality was progressive for the time period, Davis firmly believed in certain sexual morals, as she stated “more than all is the importance of the conservation of moral character.”
Through her career Davis “met lords and ladies, capitalists, laborers, criminals, judges, scholars, and foreign potentates with the same disarming simplicity,” that surprised politicians and charmed journalists. She encouraged the construction of clean, humane prisons (complete with hospital facilities), kindergartens, public libraries, recreation centers, proper sewage treatment plants, and unemployment offices. She also advocated that public schools teach skills such as domestic science and manual training to working-class students that were not expected to attend college. Davis was fervent in her belief that recreational activities were necessary for the poor; she saw it as a community’s responsibility to “help them to have a good time in safe and sane ways.” She campaigned for socialist politicians in positions throughout New York City and organized relief efforts for natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. She pondered the purpose of keeping mentally ill inmates in prison, saying of one “slow” inmate who killed a man while drunk, “Is there any wisdom in keeping him locked in a cell?” Davis eventually came to the conclusion that a system of corrections based on a defendant’s character, rather than the crime committed, would be in the best interest of society and the individual. She bemoaned the fact that few studies had been made about why people are driven to commit crimes.
Katharine Bement Davis was also a eugenicist, believing that “while we must move slowly,” society would be best served by the sterilization of the disabled and mentally ill. Her involvement with the movement has been documented by the Institute of the Study of Academic Racism (specifically Barry Melher’s examination of the Bureau of Social Hygiene papers, from where the quotes below originate). Despite what John D. Rockefeller Jr. called her “deep human sympathy,” Davis’s sympathies did not extend to the bodily autonomy of inmates: she sought to keep a woman she deemed “mentally deficient and incapable of reform” from “perpetuating her kind”—undergoing forced sterilization. She also administered a program tracing the family lineages of disabled inmates to which biologist and eugenicist Charles Davenport supplied eugenics field workers trained at his Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor. This project “assembled a large body of raw data which it interpreted as demonstrating the genetic basis of criminal behavior.” Although these findings were sent to judges to inform sentencing, there is no evidence that Davis ever oversaw actual sterilizations, even if she approved of the practice. Davis did not favor sterilization legislation, but thought that cases should be individually considered. Her interest in eugenics may have had a race-based component and an anti-immigrant sentiment; she said she was “glad to accept” an assignment “protecting America against indiscriminate immigration, criminal degenerates, and race suicide.
Davis was a frequent donor and traveled back to her alma mater throughout her career, often taking the train to Poughkeepsie at the unveiling of Vassar dedications. For three year, she served as a representative at large for the alumna committee. She was also the presiding officer at the Educational and Social Workers’ Conferences, an on-campus meeting of Vassar alumnae in these fields. Davis also accompanied the International Conference of Women Physicians, a New York City-based organization of which she was a member, on a visit to the college. She had jokingly described her time at the school as “the middle or the dark ages of Vassar.” In 1924, Davis gifted the college with a brass kettle in memory of Ella C. Lapham of the class of 1876.
Her alma mater seemed to return her affection; throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Vassar College held multiple receptions in her honor. In 1941, a $100,000 donation was made for two fellowships “to be awarded to students receiving a Master’s Degree in the Vassar Division of Conservation to enable them to continue study leading to a university doctorate in science.” One of these fellowships (albeit a short-lived one) was named in honor of Katharine Bement Davis.
Davis also had suggestions for how the relatively young Vassar College could improve itself: she believed that small institutions “may learn much from the administrative practices of public institutions of various types.” At a 1921 conference, she also pushed the College to consider its budget, as she “presented figures showing the cost per student and the amount met by endowment, tuition and maintenance charges drawn from the budget for 1921 and 1922 on the basis of eleven hundred students,” and compared them with other Seven Sisters colleges. She wrote in the Vassar Quarterly that alumnae should seriously consider working in settlement houses as a preparation for civic work, stating, “this principle is an attempt on the part of the individuals who have received advantages at the hands of society, and who wish to contribute to the social welfare of their community, to become a part of some section which needs to be interpreted to the community at large.” She believed that settlement training taught a “neighborly” quality that could not be entirely recreated at a wealthy liberal arts college. Davis even gave occasional guest lectures to Vassar students, including ones titled “Work for Trained Women in Reformatories for Women,” and “A Glimpse of The Life in a State Reformatory.”
Katharine Bement Davis moved to California to retire and live with her sisters at age 68, remarking that she could finally “do her own housekeeping.” She died on December 10, 1935, at the age of 75.
“Administration Problems,” Vassar Quarterly, 1 August 1921.
Bement Davis, Katherine. “Charities and Correction,” The Government of the City of New York (The New York State Constitutional Commission, 1915)
“Forgotten Women: Vassar Alumnae,” The Miscellany News, 30 November 2001.
“The Government’s Social Hygiene Problem,” Vassar Quarterly, 1 July 1918.
“Katharine Bement Davis,” Vassar Quarterly, 15 February 1936.
Marshall, Edward. “New York’s First Woman Commissioner Of Corrections: Dr. Katherine Bement Davis Talks of Her Hopes for Bettering Conditions—The Tombs an Awful Problem to Face,” New York Times, Jan. 11, 1914.
McCarty, Thomas C. “Katharine Bement Davis,” The New York City Department of Correction, 1997.
Melher, Barry. “Sources in the Study of Eugenics #2: The Bureau of Social Hygiene Papers” Archival Resources for the History of Genetics and Allied Sciences—Institute for the Study of Academic Racism.
“Settlement Work as a Preparation for Civic Work,” Vassar Quarterly, 1 November 1916.
“Vassar to Have Graduate Division of Conservation,” Vassar Quarterly, 1 April 1941.
“The Vassar Miscellany Contents,” Vassar Miscellany, 1 June 1908.
“Work for Trained Women in Reformatories for Women,” Vassar Miscellany, 1 May 1906.