Katharine Gibbs: Pioneering American Business Executive

By Rose Doherty

Women will be in public life from now on.  However, this societal change did not happen quickly and was the result of many 19th-century women’s work.  Katharine Ryan Gibbs (1863-1934) is one of these outstanding pioneers.

When Katharine Gibbs was 46 years old at the beginning of the 20th century, she was widowed. Her husband died intestate, she had no income, and she had two young sons to support. With only a high school diploma, she created Katharine Gibbs School, an educational institution that became the best of its kind in the world.

The Gibbs family motto “Hold to your purpose” was the guiding mantra of her life and the lives of those associated with the institution for 100 years (1911-2011). Gibbs graduates of all programs learned to produce excellent work on demand.

Katharine Gibbs was an entrepreneur from a time when that term was not applied to women.  She educated women for business when they were not welcome.  She created her school in hostile times when a Harvard Medical School doctor said that higher education could cause the uterus to atrophy!

Katharine Gibbs’s character set her apart. She was a paragon of excellence, graciousness, manners, and very hard work. In 2014, the National Women’s History Alliance honored Katharine Ryan Gibbs as a woman of character, courage, and commitment. The award will become part of the Gibbs archive at Brown University for future researchers in business, American studies, education, and women’s studies.

While Gibbs began with secretarial programs, the hot subject for the early 20th-century business world when men were secretaries, later curricula included areas like hotel and restaurant management, graphic design, and medical assisting, the hot educational topic in the 21st century.

The first school was in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1911 followed by Boston 1917 and New York 1918. She was CEO of three schools two years before women had the vote.

After her death, her son and new president Gordon Gibbs opened a winter campus in Bermuda until World War II made the trip by boat too dangerous.  Campuses opened by the Gibbs family followed in Chicago and Montclair, New Jersey.

The family sold the school to Macmillan Publishers in 1968. Before the final campus Boston closed in 2011, there were three more corporate owners, many new campuses including Melville (Huntington), New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and sites in Maryland and Virginia. New curricula responded to business needs, all schools obtained degree-granting authority from their states, and men returned to Gibbs.

Gibbs graduates of all programs learned to produce excellent work on demand, and their excellence can be seen in their accomplishments.  These graduates are her legacy; they are business executives and owners, lawyers, writers, college and university faculty, artists, public figures, creative directors, and even a US ambassador, a judge, and a college president.

Famous graduates include Katharine Towle, first director of women marines and dean of students at the University of California Berkeley; Patricia Ryan, first female editor of People; Loretta Swit, Emmy-winning actress; Meredith Vieira, journalist and television personality; Mary Sutton Ramsdell, first state policewoman in the nation; and Ruth A. Robinson, Chief of the Army Medical Specialist Corps.

Katharine Gibbs was devoted to education and had an unswerving work ethic and persevering spirit. She was born into a family that believed in women’s education. She was “always willing to pay the price of high attainment and she asked the same self-discipline of her students.”  Katharine Ryan Gibbs insisted on a place in the world and created a legacy of independence, pride, and competence that is still strong in the twenty-first century.

Mrs. Gibbs, as she was always called, began by advertising in magazines like Harper’s Bazar [sic] in 1922.  She wrote an essay that was in the classified advertisements.  She said, “Expect great things!  Expect great things of your fellow men and of yourself. For great opportunities are ahead, greater than any that have come before. But only those who have the courage and the vision to expect them will profit when they come.”

Katharine Gibbs wrote in the alumnae magazine The Gibbsonian.  Below is some of her wisdom.

  • “Accomplishment comes only as the result of two important things—knowing definitely what you want and setting out to get it.”
  • “I can wish nothing better for you than that you learn to think in terms of possibilities rather than difficulties and so make all achievements easier for yourselves.”
  • “Distinguish between those things which are best and those which are second best. Choose and hold fast to the best.”


Editor’s note: Interested in learning more about Katharine Gibbs? Rose Doherty gave a talk at History Camp Boston about her in 2019. You can watch the lecture here.