Sociology Index

Kate Waller Barrett

Kate Waller Barrett, née Katherine Harwood Waller, was a prominent Virginia physician, humanitarian, philanthropist, sociologist and social reformer, best known for her leadership of the National Florence Crittenton Mission, which she founded in 1895 with Charles Nelson Crittenton. Her causes included helping the "outcast woman, the mistreated prisoner, those lacking in educational and social opportunity, the voteless woman, and the disabled war veteran." Although comparatively little known today, she was "[o]ne of the most prominent women of her time." From her own experiences as a slaveholder and with Jim Crow laws, Barrett also realized how spirits could be broken by degradation. After her speech at the Democratic National Convention received a standing ovation, she was asked to consider running for Governor of Virginia. Although flattered, she did not pursue the idea due to her declining health.

Noting Barrett's background and that her era corresponded with the institutionalization of Jim Crow throughout the South, historian Katherine G. Aiken concludes that "[w]ithin this context, the NFCM made pathbreaking overtures to the African American community." Aiken observes that under Barrett, the NFCM operated a "colored mission" in Alexandria, Virginia, with not only its inmates but all of its workers being Black.

Barrett's central interest was the plight of unmarried mothers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a group that suffered from national prejudices. After starting a "rescue home" on her own in Atlanta, despite being officially opposed by the local government, she joined forces with Charles Nelson Crittenton (1833–1909), a wealthy New Yorker also interested in creating safe havens for "fallen women."

Under Barrett's influence, the emphasis slowly shifted to prioritizing unmarried mothers with a secondary emphasis on prostitutes. Barrett was instrumental in helping unwed mothers become an acceptable subject of philanthropy. She successfully advocated her social reform views by giving a number of public speeches and publishing a number of articles on the plight of the unwed mother.

Although the NFCM shifted its emphasis from prostitution to unmarried mothers, Barrett led forcefully when the anti-prostitution scare under the label of "white slavery" surfaced around 1910. "When many in the United States were caught up in the white-slavery hysteria, Barrett and the NFCM pushed to help the victims of prostitution rather than to punish them as offenders... NFCM public pronouncements denounced attempts to place the blame for prostitution solely on women".

Katherine Barrett was a charter member and vice president of the League of Women Voters, and a motivating force behind the creation of the American Legion Auxiliary. Barrett also held offices in a number of political organizations including:
Vice President of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (1909–1920), President of the National Council of Women (1911–1916), the first Virginia State President, American Legion Auxiliary, President, American Legion Auxiliary (1922–1923), Vice President of the Conference of Charities and Corrections of Virginia. She was also active in the National Congress of Mothers, the Parent-Teacher Association, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Daughters of the King, Episcopal Church, The National League of Social Services, and the Commission on Training Camp Activities.