Suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt

Throughout 2020 we’re commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Woman Suffrage Amendment. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock, an archives technician at the National Archives in College Park.

“To the wrongs that need resistance, To the right that needs assistance, To the future in the distance, Give yourselves.” —Carrie Chapman Catt

Few women were as effective in mobilizing and coordinating for the woman suffrage movement as Carrie Chapman Catt. She was instrumental in revitalizing the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and played a key role in the successful campaign to win voting rights for women. In 1920 she founded the League of Women Voters upon the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and many credit her abilities as a skillful political strategist to affect change.

Carrie Clinton Lane, born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, Wisconsin, was the second of three children of Lucius and Maria (Clinton) Lane. When she was seven, her family moved to rural Charles City, Iowa, where she graduated from high school in 1877. In 1880, as the only woman among her peers, she graduated from the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm in Ames (now as Iowa State University) at the top of her class.

After college, she returned to Charles City to work as a law clerk, then as a school teacher and a principal in nearby Mason City. In 1883, she rose to the rank of superintendent of schools, becoming one of the first women in the nation to do so.

In February 1885, Lane married Leo Chapman, editor and publisher of the Mason City Republican, in a ceremony at her parents’ Charles City home. Seeking new employment, Leo traveled to San Francisco, California, the following year but, tragically, he died of typhoid fever.

Carrie Chapman arrived a few days after her husband’s death and decided to remain in San Francisco, where she found employment with a newspaper during part of that time. In 1887, she returned to Charles City and began writing and lecturing as a member of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. It didn’t take long before she became the group’s recording secretary, and from 1890 to 1892 she served as the Iowa association’s state organizer.

In June 1890, she married George Catt, a fellow Iowa Agricultural College alumnus she met during her stay in San Francisco. Catt supported and encouraged her suffrage activity, and Mrs. Catt began to work nationally for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, speaking in 1890 at its Washington, DC, convention.

Delegation of officers of the National American Woman Suffrage Association on the steps leading to executive offices of the White House. Front row, left to right: Mrs. Wood Park, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, Mrs. Helen H. Gardner: second row, Miss Rose Young, Mrs. George Bass, and Miss Ruth White, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 45568322)

Catt’s writing and speaking engagements established her reputation as a champion for the suffragist movement. In 1892, Susan B. Anthony requested that she address Congress on the proposed suffrage amendment, and in 1900 she succeeded Anthony as NAWSA president  

In 1902, Catt helped organize the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), and the movement proceeded to catch on in 32 nations. In 1904, she resigned her NAWSA presidency, citing her husband’s ill health. The following three years were devastating for Catt: her husband died in October 1905, followed by the deaths of Susan B. Anthony in February 1906, Catt’s younger brother William in September 1907, and her mother in December 1907. Encouraged by those close to her to travel abroad, she spent much of the following eight years as IWSA president promoting equal-suffrage rights worldwide.

Catt returned to the United States in 1915 to resume the leadership of NAWSA. The organization had become fractured under the leadership of Anna Howard Shaw, and in 1916, at a NAWSA convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Catt unveiled her “Winning Plan” to campaign simultaneously for suffrage on both the state and federal levels. She also revealed her strategy to compromise for partial suffrage in those states resisting change.

It was under Catt’s dynamic leadership that NAWSA won the backing of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as state support for the amendment’s ratification. In 1917, New York passed a state woman suffrage referendum, and by 1918, after prolonged resistance, President Woodrow Wilson finally supported the cause.

On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment officially became part of the U.S. Constitution. Finally, 144 years after independence, women in the United States were ensured the right to vote at the federal level.

After stepping down from the NAWSA presidency after its victory, Catt persisted in her work to promote equal suffrage and educate the newly enfranchised by founding the new League of Women Voters and serving as its honorary president for the remainder of her life.

In 1923, with Nettie Rogers Shuler, she published Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement, and in her later years, Catt’s attention shifted toward the causes of world peace and child labor. She established the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War in 1925, serving as its chair until 1932 and then served as honorary chair after stepping down. She also supported the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations.

Carrie Chapman Catt died of heart failure at her New Rochelle, New York, home on March 9, 1947, at the age of 88. Her generational influence has been felt by many, and her outstanding organization and oratory skills, stretching over the span of 33 years, were critical in uniting both major political parties at the state and national levels to achieve woman suffrage. She is buried alongside her longtime companion, Mary Garret Hay, at Woodlawn Cemetery in the north Bronx, New York.

Learn more about woman activists and the Centennial of the 19th Amendment on our website.

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