Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947)

2012-01-16 00:24:39

In 1859, Carrie Chapman Catt was born Carrie Clinton Lane in Wisconsin. She and her family soon moved to Iowa where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State Agricultural College in 1880. During college, she enjoyed public speaking and after reading law for a year after college, she began teaching high school. She then became the school’s principal and the superintendent of schools. In 1885, she wed Leo Chapman, the editor of the weekly Mason City Republican. She became coeditor of the paper and created a feature known as ‘‘Woman’s World’’ to discuss women’s rights issues. Due to political problems evolving from accusations made by Leo Chapman in the paper and an eventual lawsuit, the Chapmans sold the paper and left town. Leo looked for work in San Francisco while Carrie stayed with her parents. En route to see Leo, she received word that her husband had died of typhoid fever. Carrie remained in San Francisco for a year, where she worked as a reporter and began lecturing. She then returned to her hometown of Charles City, Iowa, to continue lecturing and working for local newspapers. She also joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union at this time.

When she attended the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1889, the association elected her state lecturer and organizer. At the national suffrage convention in 1890, the two leading woman suffrage organizations reunited as the NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Amendment) after a rupture two decades earlier, recognizing both methods of attaining woman suffrage—through state amendments and through a federal constitutional amendment. Also in 1890, Chapman married engineer George Catt. During her first election campaign as a budding feminist politician, Catt went to South Dakota in 1891 to help gain support for a referendum to enfranchise women, and the campaign went disastrously. The following year, the Catts moved to New York. She continued her speaking engagements and became head of the NAWSA’s new business committee. Catt wrote detailed instructions on how to start and maintain suffrage clubs, and she significantly helped to both create new and revitalize local clubs. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Catt began thinking about working with women on an international level. In 1902, she founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) nearly entirely on her own and despite substantial opposition from her very powerful mentor, Susan B. Anthony. Catt held the presidency of the NAWSA from 1900 to 1904, but resigned her office then due to her husband George’s poor health.

Catt continued both her national and international work for women, but her own health was deteriorating. In 1911, in a trip around the world, she announced that the battle for justice must be for the women of the entire world. In 1915, she again became president of the NAWSA and remained its president through the successful passage of the Nineteenth Amendment—which gave women the right to vote—in 1920. Throughout this time period, Catt and the NAWSA supported gaining the vote by constitutional means, whether through individual states or through a federal amendment. States were necessary because they could use their representatives to press for a federal bill, and the federal amendment was essential since it might be nearly impossible to get every individual state to ensure women the franchise.

When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, the NAWSA decided to stand by the government. Catt would be widely criticized for NAWSA’s decision, with pacifists accusing her of selling out to war and antisuffragists criticizing her lack of wartime work. Yet Catt herself had opposed war throughout her life, and in 1915, along with Jane Addams, she helped found the Woman’s Peace party. She considered peace to be the greatest objective of any reformer. Catt led a critical suffrage campaign in New York State through the New York Woman Suffrage party that she founded earlier in the decade. Along with New York, six other states passed woman suffrage in 1917. In May 1919, the House ratified the woman suffrage bill, and the Senate followed the following month. After being passed by three quarters of the states, the Nineteenth Amendment passed into law on August 26, 1920.

Once woman suffrage was gained, Catt shifted her emphasis to increasing women’s political power. In 1925, Catt organized the first annual Conference on the Cause and Cure of War to promote international solutions to conflict. Throughout her life, Catt led women throughout the world in the quest for suffrage. She died at her home in New York in 1947.


References and Further Reading

  • Catt, Carrie Chapman, and Nettie Rogers Shuler. Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement. New York: Scribner’s, 1926
  • Fowler, Robert. Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986
  • Peck, Mary. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Biography. New York: The HW Wilson Company, 1944

See also Anthony, Susan B.