While Martha Matilda Harper was growing her business within the traditionally female sphere of beauty, another Rochester woman was pushing the boundaries even further. Born to Irish immigrants, Kate Gleason (1865–1933) was just 12 years old when she went to work as bookkeeper in her father’s machine-tool company. It was the start of a robust career in not one but three male-dominated professions—engineering and manufacturing, banking, and building.
In 1884, Gleason became the first woman to be admitted to Cornell University’s engineering program. She was called back to Rochester before completing her studies to take on the role of secretary-treasurer and international sales person for Gleason Works, helping to expand the local business into a global enterprise. Susan B. Anthony, a friend of Gleason’s mother and mentor to Kate, praised her for exceeding the expectations of women of her day, describing her as “the ideal business woman of whom I dreamed fifty years ago.”
Gleason’s business acumen enabled her to depart from the family business in 1913 and take up her own interests in construction and real estate, concrete, and trailer manufacturing in East Rochester, where she also became a community advocate. When the president of the First National Bank was called to duty in World War I in 1918, Gleason assumed leadership. When she observed a need for safe, affordable housing for families in East Rochester, she designed and built an entire neighborhood of fireproof concrete cottages, which she named Concrest. These homes still stand almost 100 years later.
Gleason’s outlook and actions fueled her passionate pursuit of suffrage, carrying on a tradition she learned from her parents. She supported the movement at home and further afield, making contributions to campaigns in New York, Ohio, California, and Oregon. Gleason and her father hosted the final birthday gathering for Susan B. Anthony in 1906, at which the local Political Equality Club presented the guest of honor with a gold coin for each year of her life and a roster of 122 new members of the organization.
The ideal business woman of whom I dreamed fifty years ago – a worthy daughter of a noble father. May there be many such in the years to come is the wish of yours affectionately
Susan B. Anthony
Dec. 2, 1903
Close to the suffrage movement, Gleason was a friend of Anthony who inscribed this volume by noting that Gleason, in 1903, was “the ideal business woman of whom I dreamed fifty years ago.”
Produced in six volumes from 1881-1922, History of Woman Suffrage documents the movement’s presence in the United States. Written by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida Husted Harper, and others associated with the National Woman Suffrage Association, the volumes are both personal and public in their chronicling of the experiences of women.