Friday, December 1

What a fate–to be the talented sister of two famous brothers! 

Katharine Wright, sister of Orville and Wilbur, is in the news this week because her correspondence with other men of her era was being auctioned by Christie’s, the renowned art appraiser and seller.

Katharine Wright Haskell
photo from Wikipedia

Thank you to book and manuscript specialist Heather Pisani for her review of the Katharine’s letters and her sketch of the life of this influential woman.  Thanks also to my brother Jim, who sent me this link:

Though Katharine was the youngest of her siblings, her brother Orville was quite dependent on her. She called him “Little Brother.” When she finally married at age 51, Orville had a fit and never spoke to her again.

She was essentially the manager of her brother’s efforts, their financial affairs, their patent, and their acceptance as the first to achieve flight.

Virginia Woolf wrote about what might have been the outcome if Shakespeare had had a sister as talented in writing plays as he was.

She might have scribbled some pages secretly, wrote Virginia, but she would have been “careful to hide them or set fire to them.”  The senior Shakespeares would have tried to force her into marriage with the son of a well-to-do family, but she would have run off to London instead to work in the theatre. 

Only women could be actors in the 1580s, so she would have been laughed out of town, or perhaps seduced and found herself pregnant and desperate and “killed herself one winter’s night.”

“That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius,” writes Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, chapter three.

Katharine Wright fared much better than that.  In 1893 she enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college in the US to enroll both women and men.  After three years, however, she took time out to care for Orville when he was seriously ill.

She became a Latin teacher after graduating but stopped that work to manage her brothers’ affairs, traveling to France with them to demonstrate flight to European rulers.

Katharine also worked hard for women’s suffrage and was successful in making Ohio the fifth state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

After thirty years of service to her brothers and their legacy, she married a fellow Oberlin graduate–but Orville was furious at her for not continuing to pour all her energy into his health and career.  He never spoke to her again. (Katharine had already lost her brother Wilbur to typhoid fever contracted in Europe, just as Virginia had lost her brother Thoby.) 

Though Katharine’s life turned out better than Woolf had predicted for Shakespeare’s sister, the similarities are striking.

What trials Katharine Wright faced!  

Though largely responsible for her brothers’ success and for the recognition they received, she was expected to place their needs ahead of her own and give up her own life for theirs.

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