Wright On, Sister
Would the Wright brothers have invented their airplane without the support of their sister? Probably. But they might not have been the first.
Such was the tender lament of 24-year-old Katharine Wright, whose then little-known brothers were planning a 1901 trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for a test launch of their newest glider. As in the past, Katharine would stay behind in their Dayton, Ohio, home, teaching Latin classes at Steele High School and helping to pay the household bills.
Although Katharine had no role in inventing the airplane, she was the stalwart of the Wright trio—the emotional and organizational glue that held together the reticent bachelor brothers in the years leading up to their historic first flight in 1903—and afterward, when fame threatened to overwhelm them.
In this centennial year of her brothers' achievement, Katharine is emerging as an important figure in her own right; at Oberlin, certainly, she is among the College's most unsung heroines. She graduated from Oberlin in 1898 and later served as an Oberlin trustee—the second female ever elected to the Board. She worked passionately on several committees, including that which nominated College President Ernest Wilkins, and, upon her early death was remembered by Oberlin for her zest, intelligence, humility, and humor.
The youngest of five Wright children, Katharine came of age as two movements were reshaping America: the suffragette movement, which in 1920 won the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, and the rise of America as an industrial power, aided by its emerging dominance in steel, automobiles, and, of course, aviation. Katharine would play roles in both. She was smart, persistent, engaging, and when needed, hard-nosed.
Colleagues and friends, for the most part, witnessed her charming side, but she wasn't one to mince words when angered. During her tenure as an Oberlin trustee in the 1920s, she referred to one College dean as "cold as ice and calculating as an adding machine." Other targets of irritation included her unruly high-school Latin students, and, of course, her brothers. When she relayed to Orville how she had gotten the boys in her Latin class into line, he quipped, "I'm glad to see someone else catching it besides us."
Members of the Wright family pursued their passions obsessively. Katharine's father, Bishop Milton Wright, precipitated a split in the Church of the United Brethren rather than back down on a moral issue that had divided his congregation. Her brothers—despite their lack of money and college education—relished intellectual challenge and emerged as the improbable winners in the race to be first to fly.
Katharine herself embraced the suffrage movement—she was a key organizer of the 1914 suffrage parade in Dayton in which her father and Orville both marched—and she often shunned everything else. "Orv used to say that women's suffrage was like Rome, in one respect. All roads led to it with me," she acknowledged in a 1924 letter to a friend. "No matter how or where the conversation started, I always managed to switch it onto the women's suffrage track. It wasn't quite as bad as that, but I was very much in earnest about it. Now that it's settled, I look around for other worlds to conquer."
Katharine also fought the broader battle of the sexes, as she'd had first-hand experience with discrimination. When funds ran short in the Dayton schools, the district solved the problem by cutting the pay of women faculty. She served as president of the local Young Women's League and was a founding member of the still-existing Dayton Women's Club, a social and networking organization for new college graduates. As an Oberlin trustee, she argued that women should be awarded honorary degrees and that female employees should be paid as much as men.
Letters she wrote in the mid-1920s to her future husband, Henry "Harry" Haskell, Class of 1896, gave vent to her frustration. "I get so het up over living forever in a man's world, with so much discussion about what kind of women men like and so little concern over what kind of men women like. If you ask me, there was no reason, and never has been, why women should sit around and wait for men to turn up. I've always lived with men and don't look on them as such a wonderful ‘treat!' But you know perfectly well how the world has always been managed by men to promote that very idea."