The Margaret Sanger Papers

Davis, Katharine Bement (1860-1935)

Prison reformer and social worker. A graduate of Vassar, Davis was head of St. Mary's Street College Settlement in Philadelphia from 1893 until she began graduate work in political economy at the University of Chicago in 1897. After receiving her doctorate in 1900, Davis was named superintendent of the newly opened Bedford Hills (NY) Reformatory for Women. In 1914, she was appointed Commissioner of Corrections for New York City, the first woman to serve in a cabinet-level position in the city government. Though Davis instituted a series of progressive reforms in the prison system, many blamed her for doing too little to ameliorate the many remaining problems. Among her critics was Margaret Sanger, who published several attacks on Davis in The Woman Rebel. In 1915, Davis became chairman of New York City's Parole Board (1915-1917) and was influential in defining operation of New York's new indeterminate-sentence law. She retired from civil service after the defeat of her sponsor, Mayor John Mitchel in 1917 and was immediately hired as general secretary of the Rockefeller Foundation's Bureau of Social Hygiene. In this capacity Davis promoted funding of several public health and hygiene programs, among them Margaret Sanger's 1924 proposal for clinical studies of birth control conducted by the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. Davis retired from the Bureau in 1928 to work on her own research. She published Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women (1929).
References: W. David Lewis, "Katharine Bement Davis," in Edward James et al, Notable American Women (1971).