Carrie Chapman Catt

Heroines for Women’s Right to Vote:  Carrie Chapman Catt

By:  Hannah Kimberley

Carrie Chapman Catt

Have you ever wondered how the League of   Women Voters got started? The answer lies with an organized worker and skilled speaker named Carrie Chapman Catt. In 1919, just before Congress awarded women the right to vote, Catt founded the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan organization that would help women in using their newly won right to vote. Catt knew that women would need such an organization since they were on the verge of passing the 19th Amendment, which would soon state, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  

But how did she arrive at this point?

Carrie Lane was born in Wisconsin in 1859 and raised in Iowa. In 1877, she attended Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), and, while working various jobs to support her studies, she graduated in 1880 as the only female student in her class. After graduation, Catt worked as a law clerk, a teacher, and a principal. By 1883, she earned the position of Mason City Schools Superintendent, one of the first women to be appointed to the position.

Catt was briefly married to Leo Chapman in 1885, who died a year later from typhoid fever. By this time, she established a career in writing and lecturing, and in 1877, Catt joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. Finding a new partner who supported her suffrage work, she married George W. Catt in 1890. She then joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president in 1900, all the while giving speeches and organizing for women’s rights. 

In 1904, Catt resigned as president of NAWSA to care for her husband George, who was ill and would later die in 1905. She also lost her friend and mentor, Susan B. Anthony the following year, as well as her brother and mother a year later. Catt would spend the next nine years abroad, continuing to promote women’s suffrage and forming the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), to which she served as president from 1904 to 1923.

In 1915, Catt returned to a divided NSWA and resumed leadership. Some members of the women’s movement, such as Alice Paul, believed that they should only fight for a constitutional amendment at the federal level. Catt, a progressive, but not nearly as radical, believed that a state-by-state passage of suffrage referendums would eventually force Congress to debate a national amendment for women’s right to vote. Unlike other suffrage leaders, Catt was willing to settle for partial suffrage in the states that resisted change. She created a “Winning Plan” to work for suffrage at both the state and federal levels and publicized it in a 1916 speech at the NAWSA convention in Atlantic City. This plan helped to eventually win support of several states, including New York, which passed a state woman suffrage referendum in 1917. With dogged and diligent style, Catt worked at convincing Congress, the state legislatures, and President Wilson that women should have the right to vote. Finally, the Nineteenth Amendment awarded most* women the right to vote on August 26, 1920.

However, this did not stop Catt from her work! Devoted to peace as well as suffrage, she joined Jane Addams to form the Women’s Peace Party, and in 1925, Catt founded the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War. She supported both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Between World War I and World War II, Catt wrote and spoke on behalf of Jewish refugees and lobbied for the United States to join the World Court. However, her work was noticed beyond her supporters, and Catt ended up with her very own file at the FBI. In 1926, she challenged the Monroe Doctrine, which Catt described as “a sword suspended by a hair over the Latin continent.” This criticism, along with Catt’s peace advocacy, inspired the FBI to keep watch on her over a two-year period. In fact, one of her FBI reports states, that Catt’s “connection with the National Council for the Prevention of War is sufficient to condemn her as a supporter and advocate of subversive propaganda.” Of course, being accused of “subversion” and “unpatriotic criticism” was nothing new for Catt – she’d already faced such allegations while fighting for the right to vote. 

Carrie Chapman Catt received honorary degrees from the University of Wyoming, Iowa State College, Smith College, and Moravian College for Women. In 1933, she was awarded the American Hebrew Medal in recognition of her promoting better understanding between Jews and Christians and her work on behalf of Jewish Refugees. In 1940, she received a gold medal from the National Institute of Social Sciences, and in 1947, the League of Women Voters established the Carrie Chapman Catt Memorial Foundation. These were just a few of the honors bestowed upon Catt before she died in 1947. 

So there you have it; you have arrived at League of Women Voters of Cape Ann because of Carrie Chapman Catt. However, more importantly, many women can also arrive at the polls and cast their vote because of Ms. Catt’s efforts.

** It wasn’t until 1956 that Utah would be the last state to give Native Americans the vote.

Sources and Resources: