Kate Waller Barrett (January 24, 1857 – February 23, 1925): Physician, Humanitarian, Sociologist, Social Reformer and Co-Founder of the National Florence Crittenton Mission
Introduction: Kate Waller Barrett’s life story is unusual. Carefully reared women of the nineteenth century in America, and especially Southern women, rarely moved so far away from the restrictions of their time as did Mrs. Barrett. Born in at Clifton in Wide Water (Widewater), Virginia, the eldest of eight daughters in a prominent family, Kate Waller Barrett grew up to became a prominent physician, social reformer, humanitarian, and leader of the National Florence Crittenton Mission, a progressive organization established in 1883 to assist unmarried women and teenage girls who either had children or were trying to leave prostitution. Other causes supported by Mrs. Barrett included helping the “outcast woman, the mistreated prisoner, those lacking in educational and social opportunity, the voteless woman, and the disabled war veteran.
Early Years: Kate Waller was born January 24, 1857 in Wide Water (Widewater), Stafford County, Virginia, the eldest of 8 daughters. She was educated by governesses until she went to the Arlington Institute in Alexandria, Va., one of the leading schools for young ladies. Kate Waller’s parents were Colonel Withers Waller and Anne Eliza Stribling. There is little recorded about the Stribling family except that Kate’s grandfather was a “Dr. Stribling.”
The Waller family is traced back in English history to Sir Richard Waller, who fought in the Battle of Agincourt; the 17th. Century poet Edmund Waller is a branch of the same tree, and another scion of the family listed as “John Waller, Gentleman” linked the name with the very earliest beginnings of American history by joining the band of colonizers in 1607 which included Captain John Smith. Kate Waller Barrett was a direct descendant of John Waller; the family estate was a part of the original grant of land made by Charles II to one of his progeny.
Barrett’s son wrote: “Of all staid Virginia the section in which she lived was the most secluded and conservative…Certain standards of living, especially as respected feminine deportment, were taken for granted so thoroughly that they were to all intents and purposes a part of the law of nature. For the growing girl especially life was hemmed in on every side by coventionalities. To an ardent and adventurous spirit like that of young Kate Waller these close restrictions indeed proved, at times, almost unendurably irksome….at the time she felt chiefly the bars of the many ‘Thou shalt not’s’ with which Virginia gentry felt it necessary to cage in the impulses of the adolescent girls. Restless and endowed with potential energy for which there appeared to be no outlet she chafed more and more at the narrowness and lack of meaning of her country side existence…Life at Clifton, however, was not by any means all dull or somber. It was, in fact, within its limitations gay and lively enough…Kate herself with her never-failing vivacity, her high spirits, her active mind and sturdy good sense, was a leader in all that was going on. The beaux came flocking…” He relates an incident when she was 13 and had been denied something by her parents. If it had been possible for her to do so, she would have signaled a passing excursion boat but it was too far on Maryland side and there was no landing on the Virginia side. She commented later, “Ah! How often an accident like the placing of a steam boat landing may change a whole life!” “Looking back from the summit of years of sobering experience the Dr. Barrett of a later period could see how typical of growth youth was this primal urge to see new pastures; how it worked as a ferment in every oncoming generation of girls. Pressing them compellingly to range out for better or worse in the unknown; how to distinct courses opened out before their adventurous feet, one leading to light and love and fullness of healthy life and the other perhaps to miry degradation and death; and how, all too often, it was only the merest chance that determined which path their feet should find.”
Career Pursuits: Kate Waller’s life experience changed her form the protected Virginia girl to the energetic slum worker, the defender of the “fallen woman,” the capable administrator who was partly responsible for a national organization, the world traveler who represented the United States Government and the National Council of Women. Her father “was proud enough of his accomplished eldest daughter, but as the family remembers, with his traditional instincts of a Southern gentlemen he could never quite reconcile himself to her unaccountable predilection for the mingling her life with that of her soiled sisterhood.”
On July 19, 1876 Kate Weller married the Reverend Robert South Barrett, D.D., rector of a parish in the slums of Richmond, Va., called “Butchertown. His son wrote of the Rev. Dr. Barrett: “Hailing from the town of Wytheville, in the center of the mountainous section (although he was a native of Milton, N.C.) he had absorbed a full share of the vigor and religious fervor of the mountaineer population. These qualities had been refined but not eliminated by his theological studies and the result was a personality of marked spirituality, quite orthodox in matters of doctrine but deeply interested in the application of Christian principles to actual life rather than in the more formal exercise of the church ritual.”
When her first child was an infant, a young girl with a baby came to the rectory on a cold, snowy night in December. Mrs. Barrett cared for her and was moved by the mother’s grief for her child. It was Mrs. Barrett’s first experience with an unmarried mother and it was different from what she had imagined. “Where was the terrible degradation…with which I had always been taught to associate the fallen woman? Almost unknown to myself there entered into my heart at the moment a covenant with God that so long as I lived in my voice would always be lifted in behalf of this outcast class, and my hand always held out to aid them.”
Through her life Mrs. Barrett identified herself with the more advanced movements for the benefit of women: professional education, better laws for the protection of young girls, rescue and reformation of the unfortunate women. After sixteen years of marriage, with 5 children, she took her medical degree in Macon, Georgia, in order to perfect herself for her work. She had previously taken a course in nursing which she completed at the Florence Nightingale Training School connected with St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. The honorary degree of Doctor of Science was conferred upon her. (Identification of college or university not given.)
She established a rescue home in Atlanta, Georgia, but when she returned from abroad, she found that the City Council had passed an ordinance/ prohibiting rescue work. Newspapers took up the fight and it became a political question. Her appeal to the Ministerial Union met with no help.
She had heard of Mr. Crittenton’s work and wrote to him but he had just gone abroad. Interested people had sent him clippings about her work. He asked the Superintendent of the San Francisco
Home to go to Atlanta to help her. “As I had so signally failed to make a religious opening for him, I determined to make it at least social success and in this I was successful….Governor Northern and his wife….kindly seconded me in this effort.” The sentiment in the city changed, she had the backing of the City Council and she “Determined in every particular to merit their confidence and to have in Atlanta what should be pointed out a a model institution.”
When Mr. Crittenton got to Atlanta in 1893, he and Mrs. Barrett talked about his dream of a national organization of Florence Crittenton work. Shortly after the Barretts moved to Washington, D.C. and Mrs. Barrett had time to formulate the plans for the organization. She became General Superintendent of the National Florence Crittenton Mission in 1895. Her husband died the following year and she was free to do the constant traveling the position required.
By the terms of the Constitution of the National organization, Mr. Crittenton had been named president for life and was empowered to designate his successor. He died in November 1909 and on December 16 Mrs. Barrett assumed the office of president. The new title added to but did not change the character of her responsibilities as she retained the position of General Superintendent. She held these positions until her death in February 1925.
Mrs. Barrett’s interests were wider than Florence Crittenton work but they were all in relation to women. She was prominent in the National Council of Women. In 1899 she was corresponding secretary and was elected to head the delegation to the meeting in London. She cold not go as a delegate to the International Council in Berlin in 1904, but she was a delegate to a Committee at the Hague. From 1903 to 1911 she was vice-president with the understanding that she would have the unanimous support of American women, to bring about an affiliation with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
In 1914 Mrs. Barrett was president of the National Council of Women, and of National Florence Crittenton Mission; she was representative of Virginia for the National Congress of Mothers; vice-president of the Conference of Charities and Correction of Virginia; vice-president of Colonial Families and of the American Woman’s Prohibition League; and she was delegate to the White House Conference on the Care of Delinquent Children, which had been called by the President.
In the spring of 1914, by direction of the Commissioner General of Immigration, Mrs. Barrett was appointed a special agent of the United States Department of Labor, to undertake in connection with her visit to Europe (as a delegate to the International Council of Women) a number of investigations in Southern Europe and in the Near East, looking to the protection of women and girls deported form the United States on ground of immorality. For the Government she visited Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, Belgrade, Sofia, Constantinople.
She was active during World War I: enlisted the efforts of the Homes (girls and personnel) in selling bonds, raising gardens, making bandages. She turned her own home over for the care of sick and wounded soldiers.
Dr. Kate Waller Barrett died in February, 1925 and was buried in her birthplace.
For further reading:
The National Crittenton Foundation http://nationalcrittenton.org/
National Florence Crittenton Mission Records. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN: http://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/11/resources/738#
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project. (2012). Kate Waller Barrett (January 24, 1857 – February 23, 1925): Physician, humanitarian, sociologist, social reformer and co-founder of the National Florence Crittenton Mission. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/barrett-kate-waller/
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