Carrie Chapman Catt (January 9, 1859 – March 9, 1947) was an American women's suffrage leader who campaigned for the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave U.S. women the right to vote in 1920. Catt served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was the founder of the League of Women Voters and the International Alliance of Women. She "led an army of voteless women in 1919 to pressure Congress to pass the constitutional amendment giving them the right to vote and convinced state legislatures to ratify it in 1920" and "was one of the best-known women in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century and was on all lists of famous American women".
Catt was born Carrie Clinton Lane in Ripon, Wisconsin, the daughter of Maria Louisa (Clinton) and Lucius Lane. Catt spent her childhood in Charles City, Iowa. She moved to Iowa at the age of seven where she began school. As a child, Catt was interested in science and wanted to become a doctor. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa.
Catt's father was initially reluctant to allow her to attend college, but he relented, contributing only a part of the costs. To make ends meet, Catt worked as a dishwasher, in the school library, and as a teacher at rural schools during school breaks. Catt’s freshman class consisted of 27 students; six of whom were female. Catt joined the Crescent Literary Society, a student organization aimed at advancing student learning skills and self-confidence. Because only men were allowed to speak in meetings, Catt defied the rules and spoke up during a male debate. This started a discussion about women’s participation in the group, and ultimately led to women gaining the right to speak in meetings. Catt was also a member of Pi Beta Phi, started an all girls' debate club, and advocated for women's participation in military drill.
After three years, Catt graduated on November 10, 1880 with a Bachelor of Science degree. She was the valedictorian and only female in her graduating class. She worked as a law clerk after graduating then she became a teacher and then superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa in 1885. She was the first female superintendent of the district.
In February 1885, Carrie married newspaper editor Leo Chapman, but he died in California in August 1886, soon after of typhoid fever. She remained in San Francisco where she worked as the city's first female reporter. In 1890, she married George Catt, a wealthy engineer and Alumnus of Iowa State University. He encouraged her being involved in suffrage. Their marriage allowed her to spend a good part of each year on the road campaigning for women's suffrage, a cause she had become involved with in Iowa during the late 1880s.
Role in women's suffrage
National American Woman Suffrage Association
In 1887, Catt returned to Charles City, where she had grown up, and became involved in the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. From 1890 to 1892, Catt served as the Iowa association’s state organizer and groups recording secretary. During her time in office, Catt began working nationally for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and was even a speaker at its 1890 convention in Washington D.C. In 1892, Catt was asked by Susan B. Anthony to address Congress on the proposed woman’s suffrage amendment. Catt would go on to succeed Anthony as NAWSA president. She was elected president of NAWSA twice; her first term was from 1900 to 1904 and her second term was from 1915 to 1920. She resigned after her first term to care for her ailing husband. She would resume leadership of NAWSA in 1915, which had become badly divided under the leadership of Anna Howard Shaw. During her later years of leadership she managed to increase the size of the organization and fundraise many dollars. In 1916, at a NAWSA convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Catt unveiled her "Winning Plan". Her campaign's goals were to obtain suffrage on both the state and federal levels, and to compromise for partial suffrage in the states resisting change. Under Catt's leadership, NAWSA won the backing of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as state support for the amendment's ratification. Under Catt's leadership the movement focused on success in at least one eastern state, because previous to 1917 only western states had granted female suffrage. Catt thus led a successful campaign in New York state, which finally approved suffrage in 1917. During that same year President Wilson and the Congress entered World War I. Catt made the controversial decision to support the war effort, which shifted the public's perception in favor of the suffragettes who were now perceived as patriotic. The suffrage movement received the support of President Woodrow Wilson in 1918. After endless lobbying by Catt and NAWSA, the suffrage movement culminated in the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/naw/cattbio.html
In her efforts to win women's suffrage state by state, Catt sometimes appealed to the prejudices of the time. In South Dakota, Catt lamented that while women lacked suffrage, "The murderous Sioux is given the right to franchise which he is ready and anxious to sell to the highest bidder." In 1894, Catt urged that uneducated immigrants be stripped of their right to vote - the United States should "cut off the vote of the slums and give it to woman." "White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women's suffrage," was her argument when trying to win over Mississippi and South Carolina in 1919.
NAWSA was by far the largest organization working for women's suffrage in the U.S. From her first endeavors in Iowa in the 1880s to her last in Tennessee in 1920, Catt supervised dozens of campaigns, mobilized numerous volunteers (1 million by the end), and made hundreds of speeches. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Catt retired from NAWSA.
Catt continued her work for women's suffrage even after she retired from her presidency post at NAWSA due to the health problems of her second husband. Carrie became involved in the International Women's Suffrage Alliance subsequence to the death of her husband. Catt founded the League of Women Voters in 1920 encourage women to use their hard-won right in 1920 before the amendment was passed, serving as its honorary president for the rest of her life. In the same year, she ran as the Presidential candidate for the ideologically Georgist Commonwealth Land Party. In 1923, with Nettie Rogers Shuler, she published Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.
International women's suffrage movement
Catt was also a leader of the international women's suffrage movement. She helped to found the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in 1902, which eventually incorporated sympathetic associations in 32 nations. She served as its president from 1904 until 1923. After her husband's death in 1905, Catt spent much of the following eight years as IWSA president promoting equal-suffrage rights worldwide. After she retired from NAWSA, she continued to help women around the world to gain the right to vote. The IWSA remains in existence, now as the International Alliance of Women.
Role during the World Wars
Catt was active in anti-war causes during the 1920s and 1930s. Catt resided at Juniper Ledge in the Westchester County, New York community of Briarcliff Manor from 1919 through 1928 when she settled in nearby New Rochelle, New York.
At the beginning of World War I, Catt and fellow suffragist Jane Addams were asked to spearhead an organization that promoted peace. Catt was hesitant to join the peace movement because she believed this to be an issue that men and women should collaborate on. Reluctantly, Catt and Addams called a meeting to gain support from the women’s movement. Catt did not want to be the leader of the group because she believed that her support of the peace movement would hurt her international work with suffrage since leadership of the group would mean she was favoring one country over another. From this meeting came the decision that the NAWSA would aid the government by helping women prepare to take over jobs while men were away and would also aid the Red Cross. In addition, the group made it known that women’s suffrage would remain their top priority. During 1917, Catt’s attention remained strongly focused on women’s suffrage, leading her to abandon her work with the peace movement. This led to tension between Catt and other activists.
After the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, granting women the right to vote, Catt returned to the peace movement. Because she did not want to join any existing organization, she and a group of others founded their own organization, the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (NCCCW). The group divided the causes of war into four categories: psychological, economic, political, and social and contributory. They did not include the exclusion of women from politics and the public sphere as a cause, even though they believed in equality for women. The organization believed that it was their job as women to end wars because women were seen as morally courageous, in contrast to their male counterparts who were viewed as physically courageous.
During World War II, Catt resigned her role within NCCCW, admitting that the organization did not turn out the way she had planned. The organization had not included all women, only middle-class white women. It did not strengthen the abilities of the members, but simply educated people on international affairs.
In 1933 in response to Adolf Hitler's rise to power, Catt organized the Protest Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany.
The group sent a letter of protest to Hitler in August 1933 signed by 9,000 non-Jewish American women. It decried acts of violence and restrictive laws against German Jews. Catt pressured the U.S. government to ease immigration laws so that Jews could more easily take refuge in America. For her efforts, she became the first woman to receive the American Hebrew Medal.
The last event she helped organize was the Women's Centennial Congress in New York in 1940, a celebration of the feminist movement in the United States.
Death and recognition
On March 9, 1947, Catt died of a heart attack in her home in New Rochelle, New York. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City. alongside her longtime companion, Mary Garret Hay, a fellow New York state suffragist, with whom she lived for over 20 years.
Catt attained recognition for her work both during and after her lifetime. In 1926, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine and, in 1930, she received the Pictorial Review Award for her international disarmament work. In 1941, Catt received the Chi Omega award at the White House from her longtime friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1975, Catt became the first inductee into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame. A stamp was issued in 1948 in remembrance of the Seneca Falls Convention, featuring Catt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. In 1982, Catt was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1992, the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation named her one of the ten most important women of the century. The same year, Iowa State University established the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics and in 1992, and the Old Botany building on central campus was renovated and renamed Carrie Chapman Catt Hall in 1995. Catt was played by Anjelica Huston in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels. In 2013, she was one of the first four women to be honored on the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge in Des Moines.
On August 26, 2016 (Women's Equality Day), a monument commissioned by Tennessee Suffrage Monument, Inc. and sculpted by Alan LeQuire was unveiled in Centennial Park in Nashville, featuring depictions of Catt, Anne Dallas Dudley, Abby Crawford Milton, Juno Frankie Pierce, and Sue Shelton White.
Catt has been at the center of many controversial topics. In 1895, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote The Woman's Bible, a book about challenging the traditional religious beliefs of Catholics that women are to be passive and inferior to men. This did not sit well with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Rachel Foster Avery, the corresponding secretary of the NAWSA at the time, believed that The Woman's Bible would work against the women’s suffragist efforts. She argued that the organization was made up of women with various religious views and opinions; therefore, she did not want the organization to be associated with one particular view. She made sure to put distance between the NAWSA and Stanton’s Woman's Bible. Catt was one of the new leaders within the NAWSA. She agreed with Avery and supported her efforts to put distance between the two. Catt agreed that The Woman's Bible would alienate orthodox members of the organization, which posed a serious threat to work of the women’s movement. During the annual NAWSA convention in January, 1896, Avery called for a resolution. The resolution was passed 54 to 41. Many of the supporters of Avery included, Catt, Anna Howard Shaw, Henry Browne Blackwell, Alice Stone Blackwell, and others. This resolution caused a rift within NAWSA because Susan B. Anthony, who was the president at the time, supported Stanton. There was question surrounding whether or not the two should or would resign; however, they did not resign until later years.
Some historians consider Catt’s arguments and her stance on rights for women to be representative of white women only and find some of her arguments and remarks to be racist. While fighting for women’s rights around America, she made comments such as “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage” and while speaking about suffrage for other ethnic groups, she referred to Indians as “savages”. Debra Marquart, a professor at Iowa State University, argues that “Carrie Chapman Catt is not a woman of our time, and therefore, we cannot hold her to the standards of our time.”
Catt's language resulted in a controversy at Iowa State University, the school from which she graduated. One student, who declared that the name of Catt Hall was offensive to black students, engaged in a hunger strike to pressure the university to negotiate the renaming of the building. He objected to Catt's statement that the only way to achieve a dominant white class was by allowing women to become “enfranchised”. The Ames chapter of the NAACP also objected to the building name. The building was not renamed, however.
Despite being married twice, Catt did not live with her husband full-time. After the death of George Catt, she lived with Mary "Mollie" Garrett Hay, a suffragist leader from New York. Hay was not a part of the international circle of elites that Catt aligned herself with; however, it was understood that they had a special relationship. Catt requested burial alongside Hay, rather than either of her husbands. When Hay died in 1928, Alda Wilson moved in with Catt and remained as her secretary until Catt's death. Wilson was Catt's companion and eventual estate executor, donating six volumes of photographs and memorabilia from Catt's estate to Bryn Mawr College.
In popular culture
Winter Wheat, a new musical by Cathy Bush about the ratification of the 19th Amendment in Tennessee, premiered at the Barter Theatre in 2016. The original version of the play had a limited run at the Barter in 2014. Carrie Chapman Catt and Mary Garrett Hay are characters in the play. The show also features anti-suffragist Josephine Anderson Pearson and Tennessee state representative Harry T. Burn, who cast the deciding vote for ratification in Tennessee.