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Barrett, Kate Harwood Waller

By Bridgette Zerfas

Graduate Student, Grand Valley State University

Biographical Highlights

Driven by her quest to provide guidance and hope to unwed mothers and teens, Dr. Kate Harwood Waller Barrett (1858-1925) devoted her life to young women in crisis who were in need of maternity care, housing, education and support. Dr. Barrett most notably served as leader to the National Florence Crittenton Mission, an organization best known for its nationwide rescue missions and maternity homes. After taking leadership of the organization, she dramatically expanded its services and opened dozens of additional shelters. Dr. Barrett was also active in the community, frequently serving as a key speaker and outspoken advocate on local and national committees. Her passion as well as her extensive knowledge of medicine allowed her to become one of the most credible women’s reformers of her time.


Historical Roots

Katherine Harwood Waller was born on January 24,1857 in Falmouth, Virginia. Her father was a wealthy plantation owner and Colonel to the Confederate Army during the Civil War. On July 19, 1876, Katherine married Reverend Dr. Robert South Barrett, an Episcopal minister (Aiken 1998).

The first of the Barrett’s children was a son, whom they named Robert South Jr. When Robert Jr. was a small baby, a woman with an infant appeared at the Barrett’s front door begging for their help. The woman had been left destitute without anywhere to turn. Instantly, Katherine felt a desire to help the woman and her cause (ibid.). Seeking to gain a better understanding of how to best serve women in similar situations, Katherine Barrett entered the Women’s Medical College of Georgia. She graduated with a medical degree in 1892 and an honorary degree of Doctor of Science in 1894 (Fargo).

In 1893, with a team of local women, Dr. Kate Barrett began the process of opening a haven for unwed mothers in Atlanta. The local community foresaw the home as a negative reflection of their neighborhood and argued against allowing it to be permanently located in their area. Barrett was forced to seek approval from the city council, a barrier never before attempted by a woman. Although she convinced the members of the council to allow them to open their home, they lacked the much needed funding to do so. Dr. Barrett decided to write Charles Crittenton, a well-know evangelist and supporter of women’s rescue efforts. Her story resonated with Crittenton since he held similar views and shared her passion for women in need. That same year, Crittenton visited Atlanta and made a contribution of five thousand dollars to support Barrett’s endeavor (Aiken 1998).

In 1894, Dr. Barrett’s husband was appointed a new position, forcing his family to relocate to Washington D.C., the same city where Charles Crittenton lived. Barrett and Crittenton joined forces and established the national headquarters of the Florence Crittenton Mission in Washington. Shortly after, Dr. Katherine Barrett was named the organization’s main director (Crittenton Services). During this same period, Kate’s husband passed away, leaving her a young widowed mother with six children.

In 1898, Dr. Barrett organized the National Florence Crittenton Mission Training School for Christian Workers; an establishment dedicated to providing future women’s missionary workers with the skills necessary to succeed. Her emphasis on empowering women was unconventional for the time period, challenging the belief that women could not financially support themselves. She also nurtured the idea that training and skill were necessary to perform a job well. Students were part of a highly structured and demanding schedule, focusing on domestic science, religion, social welfare, medicine and physical exercise. A hospital was also located within the school, allowing Dr. Kate Barrett and her students the opportunity to treat the many women that came to them with diseases, poor health and complications with pregnancy (Aiken 1998). 

Dr. Katherine Barrette served as a voice to the community. She published numerous books, pamphlets and magazines, most notably the Florence Crittenton Magazine (ibid.). She served as president to the National Council of Women and was a frequent speaker at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (ibid.).

Later in her career, Dr. Barrett displayed an interest in politics and public policy. She became a well-known advocate for immigrant women and was appointed by the U.S. Government to serve an agent to investigate related problems. When World War I began, her organization became a partner in supporting the war efforts (ibid.).

After more than thirty years of service to The Florence Crittenton Mission and the women’s reformation movement, Dr. Kate Barrett passed away on February 23, 1925 (ibid.).


Importance

Over eighty years after her death, the labor of Dr. Kate Waller Barrett continues to thrive. This is seen in the numerous maternity homes and women’s shelters that are still operating with similar ideals to those of Dr. Barrett’s. Accordingly, her visionary leadership of the National Florence Crittenton Mission has provided a framework for dozens of rescue missions and maternity homes across America.

Since the first Florence Crittenton home opened 1883, thousands of women and children have been impacted by Florence Crittenton Homes and those modeled from them. Thus, Dr. Barrett’s success is not only measured in the number of shelters she established, but also additionally the number of lives she has changed by fighting to keep mothers and children together.


Ties to Philanthropic Sector

The National Florence Crittenton Mission was an organization that expanded the number of rescue homes in America and flourished under the direction of Dr. Kate Barrett. The social service sector was dramatically influenced by her ideals and leadership as seen in the numerous homes she helped facilitate and community activities in which she participated. She even had an impact on several movements such as those seeking rights for woman and immigrants. Dr. Barrett not only devoted her life to service, but she also encouraged hundreds of individuals to become involved in her organization, most notably through her Training School for Christian Workers.

Although Dr. Kate Harwood Barrett made a personal commitment to serve unwed mothers, she initially lacked the funding needed to open a women’s shelter. The story of Charles Crittenton exemplifies the immense impact an individual philanthropist can have on a reform movement.  Likewise, since its beginning, the National Florence Crittenton Mission has collaborated with numerous other agencies, illustrating how powerful partnerships within the nonprofit sector can be.


Key Related Ideas

Domestic Science is defined as “the study of household management.” This has been a common course of study in maternity homes since their origination with the purpose of providing a basic understanding of the necessary skills needed to support and operate a household (Merriam-Webster 1993).

A Maternity Home is an establishment dedicated to providing care to pregnant women and women with young infants. Typically, these homes were structured to assure that the mother and child remained together (Aiken 1998), and commonly offered education on raising children and household domestics. Some maternity homes still exist today, but other agencies provide outpatient services and offer alternatives such as assistance with adoption.

A Rescue Mission is defined as “a city religious mission seeking to convert and rehabilitate the down-and-out.” Rescue missions (or homes) usually provided shelter and basic necessities to those in need. Their impact has been significant, as thousands of individuals utilize the services of a rescue mission every day throughout the United States (Merriam-Webster 1993).


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Reverend Dr. Robert South Barrett (1877-1959):  An Episcopal minister from Virginia, Reverend Barrett married Kate Harwood Waller on July 19, 1876. He became the dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia and was later appointed general missioner of the Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. (Aiken 1998). He is responsible for encouraging Kate Barrett to attend medical school.

  • Charles Nelson Crittenton (1833-1919): As a distinguished New York businessman in the pharmaceutical trade, Crittenton experienced a dramatic life change in 1882 when his young daughter Florence died of scarlet fever. Seeking to find hope amidst his daughter’s tragic death, Crittenton turned to religion and began evangelizing to young women living on the streets. In 1883, he opened “The Florence Night Mission,” a place of respite for young unwed mothers (Florence Crittenton Agency). Crittenton quickly became an advocate for women in crisis, opening forty-six Florence Crittenton homes by 1897. His vision of a nationwide chain of rescue homes became known as the National Florence Crittenton Mission. He is also credited as the chief financial supporter for many of the homes (Crittenton Services). 

  • President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924): In his term as United States president from 1913 to 1921, President Wilson played a role in furthering the cause of the women’s rescue movement. Most notably, he postponed a bill that would have displaced many prostitutes, allowing reformers the chance to find more permanent housing for the women. President Wilson also wrote letters of support for the Crittenton Mission to be used in fundraising campaigns (American Memory).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Crittenton Services, Inc. is a nonprofit treatment organization with several locations based out of West Virginia. They serve as a “behavioral health center, certified family preservation provider, residential maternity facility and child care agency” (http://www.florencecrittenton.net).

  • Florence Crittenton Home Circle of Helena was founded in 1896 by Charles Crittenton to assist troubled teens and young women. In 1906, Dr. Kate Barrett visited the site and advocated for similar homes in the area. The home currently serves the same clientele as it did originally, providing residential treatment and numerous programs geared to empowering young women in crisis (Baumler 2003).

  • Human Services, Inc. is organization based in Denver, Colorado. The agency strives to assist young families in achieving a level of self-sufficiency. The Florence Crittenton School, one of the organization’s main programs, seeks to educate young mothers and teens. They also provide a range of services including housing, financial assistance and training for fathers (http://www.humanservicesinc.org).


Related Web Sites

The City of Fargo Web site, at http://www.fargo-history.com, offers a section on the city’s hospitals, highlighting the Florence Crittenton Home in Fargo, North Dakota. Under the hospital section, the site also provides an account of how Charles Crittenton and Dr. Kate Waller Barrett founded a rescue home in the city of Fargo in 1893, along with a summary of the lives of Crittenton and Barrett.

The Florence Crittenton Agency, Inc. Web site, at http://korrnet.org/fca/, offers a brief biography of Dr. Kate Waller Barrett and Charles Crittenton. The outreach programs and residential services of the agency are described, providing an overview how the Florence Crittenton Mission has evolved in the state of Tennessee. 

The Kate Waller Barret Branch Web site, at http://www.alexandria.lib.va.us/branches/barrett.html, provides information about the public library built in Alexandria, Virginia to honor the work if Dr. Kate Waller Barrett. The site contains a link to a biography about Barrett as well as documents pertaining to her life.


Bibliography and Internet Sources

Aiken, Katherine. Harnessing the Power of Motherhood. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1998. ISBM: 1-57233-017-1

American Memory. American Women- Kate Waller Barrett Papers. Accessed 9 September 2004. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awmss5/d06.html.

Baumler, Ellen. “Florence Crittenton Home: Girl's best friend for over 100 years.” Independent Record [updated 08 August 2003; cited 2 October 2004]. Available from http://www.helenair.com/articles/2003/08/03/helena/c01080303_01.txt.

Crittenton Services, Inc. History. Accessed 9 September 2004. http://www.florencecrittenton.net.

Fargo, North Carolina. Florence Crittenton Home. Accessed 9 September 2004. http://www.fargo-history.com/hospitals/crittenton.htm.

Florence Crittenton Agency, Inc. How it began. Accessed 29 September 2004. http://korrnet.org/fca/history.html.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 10th Edition. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1993. ISBN: 0-087779-708-0.