She was a 46-year-old widow left with no income and two young sons to support. By the time she died in 1934, the Katharine Gibbs School had turned out thousands of executive secretaries. They had a reputation for their office skills, organization, punctuality and, most of all, hats, heels and white gloves.
Katharine Gibbs did it when a Harvard Medical School professor said higher education damaged ‘a woman’s ability to bear children by causing the uterus to atrophy.’
Women had few employment opportunities then, and Katharine Gibbs thought they should make the most of the opportunities they did have. She had a slogan: ‘Get above the crowd.’ And she had a dream that someday her school would stop training secretaries and start training women executives.
Catholic With a Protestant Name
She was born Catherine Ryan on Jan. 10, 1863 into a large, wealthy Irish-Catholic family in Galena, Ill. Later she changed the spelling of her name. Her father sent her to New England to acquire a cultural education from two spinsters. Then she and her sister Mary went to the Manhattanville Academy of the Sacred Heart in New York. Family friend Ulysses S. Grant, a Galena native, dropped by to visit them once.
After graduation she returned to her family’s 24-room mansion. While visiting a brother in Montana, she met and fell in love with William Gibbs, a watchmaker. They married when she was 33, he 41, and then moved to Providence to start a family.
They loved to sail, and Williams Gibbs became vice commodore of the Edgewood Yacht Club. He died on April 20, 1909, after a mast fell on his head.
Gibbs died without a will, but he did leave Katharine a Protestant-sounding last name. That aided her immeasurably when she started running a secretarial school in Providence, where prejudice against Irish-Catholics ran rampant.
Without access to her husband’s estate, she had to find a way to support her two young boys and her unmarried sister Mary, who lived with them. Her inheritance from her father was also tied up after an older brother pocketed money that belonged to Katharine and their siblings.
Feminization of the Steno Pool
Young men had typically worked as secretaries, apprentices like John Quincy Adams for the jobs they would fill some day. They were entrusted with private and confidential matters. That began to change during the Civil War, when the U.S. Treasury hired 1,500 women as secretaries. After the war, the federal government gave hiring preferences to war widows.
The nature of office work began to change as well. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1870. The Remington Arms Co. introduced a commercial typewriter in 1873. In 1887, the key-operated calculater was invented. Three years later, the dictation machine came into being. Workers needed training to use all that new office equipment.
By 1893 East Coast cities had schools preparing both men and women for office work.
In 1910, Katharine Gibbs’ sister Mary enrolled in the Providence School for Secretaries, one of many in Providence. (Johnson & Wales University started out as a secretarial school.) Mary became an assistant teacher, but she wasn’t used to the coarse students. People then viewed secretaries as drudges or temptresses.
The owner asked Mary if she wanted to buy the school. She and Katharine came up with $1,000. By 1911 they were in business, with Mary as a teacher and Katharine as a manager. They set out to train students for ‘high-grade secretarial positions, suitable for college and high school graduates.’
Katharine Gibbs wanted to expand the opportunities for women in the workplace and to prepare them to take on increased responsibility.
She cultivated an elite image, teaching not only typing and stenography, but English, speech and manners. She strictly enforced the dress code. Katharine Gibbs advertised in the local social register, Harper’s Bazaar and women’s college newspapers. In 1914, she ran an ad in the local newspaper claiming the school met the ‘needs of those to whom attendance at a large commercial school would be distasteful.’
World War I brought expansion opportunities, as young men marched off to battle, leaving unfilled secretarial positions behind. Katharine Gibbs opened a school in Boston’s Back Bay and on Park Avenue in New York City. She drew on the faculty of MIT, Columbia and Brown to teach part time.
Gibbs girls were taught to be punctual and organized. Standards for mailable letters were uncompromising: there couldn’t be a single mistake. The school helped the students find jobs. Employers would say, “Oh, a Katie Gibbs girl…send her right over.”
Women won the right to vote throughout the United States in 1920, but that didn’t open up more employment opportunities for them. In 1924, Katharine Gibbs wrote, “A woman’s career is blocked by lack of openings; by prejudice; by the fact that business is outside of a woman’s natural sphere; and finally, that she seldom is granted a just reward by way of salary, recognition, or responsibility.”
Business was booming, though. In 1924 she moved from the Caesar Misch Building to the Churchill House on the elite East Side of Providence.
She could also afford to pay her former neighbor Lillian Moller Gilbreth $10,000 to teach and consult in 1928. Gilbreth was the time-motion engineer who with her husband Frank was immortalized in Cheaper by the Dozen. She found Katharine a hard-to-deal-with micromanager.
By 1929, Katharine Gibbs had enrolled 1,000 students. By 1930, she lived on Park Avenue with three servants and expanded her Back Bay campus to five buildings. Then, 95 percent of secretaries in the United States were women.
Enrollment plummeted during the Great Depression as the job market dried up. Married women had an especially hard time finding work, as 26 states had laws prohibiting them from employment.
She created a marketing plan aimed to attract unemployed young society women of means and college sophomores. She also refused admittance to Jewish students.
Katharine Gibbs died in the middle of the Great Depression, on May 9, 1934. Two months earlier her oldest son Howard committed suicide by jumping out of a building.
Her younger son Gordon and his wife then took over the school. They expanded over the years with the promise that Gibbs graduates earned more money than other job applicants. During the ’40s, Gibbs students became known for their mandatory white gloves.
The Gibbs family sold the school in 1968. Some of the campuses have since closed, while others became part of the Sanford-Brown College network.
Alumni of the Katharine Gibbs School include Pat Ryan, who became managing editor of People magazine, Class of ’56; Doris Tarrant, who became chief executive of United Jersey Bank Northwest, a ‘40s-era graduate; and Agnes Missirian, who became chairman of Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., Class of ‘58.
With thanks to Katharine Gibbs: Beyond White Gloves by Rose A. Doherty. This story about Katharine Gibbs was updated in 2023.