On a cold and rainy night in 1878, 21-year-old Kate Waller Barrett and her husband Reverend Robert Barrett received a knock on their door. Outside stood a young woman with a baby in her arms. She was a mother who had been promised marriage, only to be betrayed and deserted after becoming pregnant. The young woman had no money and nowhere to go.
The couple invited her in, offering food and clothing to mother and child. Though the young woman could not have known it, that interaction offered Kate Waller Barrett a completely new perspective on womanhood and motherhood that would turn Kate into a prominent figure of her time.
That night was a catalyst that eventually led Dr. Kate Waller Barrett to Charles Nelson Crittenton and the establishment of the National Florence Crittenton Mission. Together with her husband, Dr. Kate Waller Barrett first opened a small rescue mission while living in Henderson, KY and later opened a rescue home for unwed mothers in Atlanta, GA. Despite being forced out of four different homes in Atlanta and facing a city ordinance to keep rescue homes from existing in the city, Dr. Barrett worked relentlessly to maintain the home.
In 1892 Dr. Barrett attended the Women’s Medical College of Georgia and obtained her degree to become better equipped for her line of work and have more public credibility. She would later take a nursing course at the Florence Nightingale Training School and go on to receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the Women’s Medical College of Georgia–all while parenting six children.
Although Kate had heard of Charles Nelson Crittenton and had written to him with a request for assistance in supporting the Atlanta Home, their paths did not physically cross until 1893. It was then that the two began working together, eventually leading to the formation of a national umbrella organization – the National Florence Crittenton Mission – in 1896. It was in this same year that Dr. Barrett’s husband passed away and she became the General Superintendent of NFCM.
Dr. Barrett dedicated the remainder of her life to the needs of single mothers through her work at NFCM, becoming president of the organization in 1909 following the death of Charles Crittenton. In this capacity she became a leader in establishing the notion that the work of rescue homes required skill and knowledge, not simply the desire to perform good works – a critical step in legitimizing social work as a profession.
Dr. Barrett’s work expanded beyond her leadership at NFCM; she held various positions in state and national organizations and offices. She was: the first Virginia state President of the American Legion Auxiliary, President of the National Council of Women, a Delegate to the International Council of Women, Vice President of the Virginia Equal Suffrage, a charter member and Vice President of the League of Women Voters, a Special Agent for the U.S. Department of Immigration, a Daughter of the American Revolution, Vice President of the Conference of Charities and Corrections of Virginia, and a Delegate to the 1924 Democratic National Convention – just to name a few of her accolades.
While National Crittenton has undergone many changes since Dr. Barrett was President and co-founder, we continue to honor her legacy through our work to catalyze social and systems change for girls and young women impacted by chronic adversity and trauma.
Kate Holbein Rademacher, board member and assistant treasurer since 2015, is the great-great granddaughter and namesake of Dr. Kate Waller Barrett. We asked her what it’s like to have reconnected with the organization her great-great grandmother helped found, and how she honors her legacy as both a family member and a member of our board.
Of all of Dr. Barrett’s many accomplishments, what do you find the most surprising or impressive?
I grew up hearing about Kate Waller Barrett’s work serving unwed mothers around the country. As I’ve learned more about her life and career, the biggest surprise was learning that she worked and fought against human trafficking. I had always assumed that issue had not gained much visibility until recently, but she was fighting against trafficking at the turn of the 20th century.
If Dr. Barrett were alive today, what do you think she would make of the world and of National Crittenton as it stands now?
It’s of course hard to say! I think she would be amazed at the progress we’ve made and also dismayed at how many problems remain unchanged. I think she would be proud of the amazing work that National Crittenton and so many partner organizations are doing every day to address the inequities and injustices that girls and women continue to face.
You seem to share some interests with your great-great grandmother, considering your educational background in sociology and public health. What interested you in these areas?
I was really shaped by mother, Lynn Holbein, who has had a lifelong commitment to social justice and social activism. She constantly told me and my brothers when we were growing up that it was our responsibility to make the world a better place. She has worked for fifty years on peace and justice issues, and that played a big role in influencing my academic and professional work.
Talk a little bit about your current work with FHI 360 and contraception. Why is this work important to you and how do you feel it connects to KWB’s legacy?
I am deeply passionate about increasing access to high quality, affordable contraceptive services for girls and women around the world. Having access to reliable birth control is crucial to all areas of health and development – including maternal and child health, gender equality, and economic advancement of families and communities. They call family planning a “best buy” in development, and I see that in my work. I feel fortunate to be able to work on a topic that has such a far-reaching impact on women and families.
As Dr. Barrett’s great-great granddaughter, you represent the 5th generation of her legacy and the first Barrett family descendant to be involved with the organization since Robert South Barrett was President & Reba Barrett Smith was Vice President and general superintendent. What has it been like for your family to reconnect with the organization?
To be honest, before the Crittenton Board reached out to my family, I didn’t realize that the organization was going strong! I had heard about Kate Waller Barrett and the Crittenton Foundation all my life, but it was the thing of the past – of family lore. The way we reconnected to the national organization is a fun story. My mother was a delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. She has an article about her delegacy that was printed in the Boston Globe framed and hanging in her bathroom. A staff member from the Boston Crittenton agency was at her house for a fundraiser and saw it. The article referenced Kate Waller Barrett. One thing led to another and the Board of National Crittenton contacted us. Given my work in reproductive health and my passion for family history, my mom knew it was right up my alley so she referred them to me. ?
What interested you in becoming a board member of National Crittenton?
I am so deeply honored to be part of Kate Waller Barrett’s family tree and legacy – and I am equally impressed by the mission and vision of National Crittenton today, so it is a perfect combination! One of Kate Waller Barrett’s daughter’s was named Lila and my 12-year-old daughter is also named Lila. I hope the organization will be going strong when she is my age so that she can be involved too!