“To the wrongs that need resistance:” Carrie Chapman Catt’s Lifelong Fight for Women’s Suffrage
“To the wrongs that need resistance. To the right that needs assistance. To the future in the distance. Give yourselves.” -- Carrie Chapman Catt (1859 – 1947)
When Carrie Lane Chapman Catt was 13-years-old and living in rural Charles City, Iowa, she witnessed something that would help to decide the course of her life. Her family was politically active and on Election Day in 1872, Carrie’s father and some of the male hired help were getting ready to head into town to vote. She asked her mother why she wasn’t getting dressed to go too. Her parents laughingly explained to their daughter that women couldn’t vote. Young Carrie didn’t think it was funny at all, and was appalled by the unfairness that men could cast ballots but women could not. Nearly 50 years later, Catt would celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women’s constitutional right to vote. Furthermore, she would be one of the leading suffragists whose lifelong work, especially her skillfully crafted “Winning Plan,” helped to make it happen.
After graduating from Iowa State Agricultural College, now Iowa State University, in 1880 – the only woman in her graduating class – Catt became a teacher, and soon after a schools’ superintendent in Mason City, Iowa. She was one of the very few women at the time to hold such a position. She married her first husband Leo Chapman, a newspaper editor of the Mason City Republican, in 1885, but their marriage was short-lived as Chapman died in 1886 of typhoid fever. Carrie married her second husband George Catt in 1890. George Catt was a liberated man of the age and encouraged his wife to work for women’s suffrage, which she happily continued to do, moving her work onto a national level with his backing and support.
Through the Iowa Woman’s Suffrage Association, Catt threw herself into speaking for the cause, traveling throughout the western United States during the 1880’s and 1890’s, working for state-level voting rights. Her first goal was to win suffrage for women in South Dakota but despite high hopes the 1890 referendum failed, much to Catt’s dismay. While deeply disappointed, Catt learned an important lesson – never again would she launch a campaign unprepared. She realized the suffrage movement needed both organization and zealous energy. She worked hard and soon blossomed as a charismatic speaker and organizational dynamo, honing her skills in reinvigorating stagnant suffrage campaigns.
In 1892, Carrie and George Catt moved to Boston for his job. George Catt was a mechanical engineer whose ground-breaking work in dredging methods had led to his landing a much sought-after contract to dredge the Boston Harbor. In the process, George invented a more efficient dredging process that made him wealthy, extended his reach nationwide, and provided financial stability for the couple. For Carrie Catt, the move marked her permanent transplantation from the Midwest to the East Coast and her ever-increasing involvement with the national women’s suffrage movement.
With her husband’s enthusiastic monetary and moral support, Carrie Chapman Catt’s work for women’s suffrage really took off. In 1890, she attended the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) national convention in Washington, D.C., where she met its president Susan B. Anthony. Impressed with the young woman from Iowa, Anthony took Catt under her wing. Catt’s first mission was to help pass women’s suffrage in Colorado. She stayed for two months, covering over 1,000 miles and visiting 29 of the state’s 63 counties. Catt’s work, and that of her sister suffragists, paid off! Colorado voters approved the referendum in 1893. Catt spent the next several years traveling across the U.S. as one of the leading forces for women’s suffrage.
In 1900, Susan B. Anthony retired as President of NAWSA and selected Catt to take her place. Catt not only became a leader in the U.S., but she also expanded the fight for women’s equality world-wide. She helped create the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), traveling the globe for the cause for a number of years. Around 1905, she had to take a step back from her duties for personal reasons. Her husband George died in 1905, followed by the deaths of Catt’s younger brother William and mother Maria in 1907. Added to these personal losses was the death of Susan B. Anthony in 1906. Catt needed time to mourn the overwhelming loss of so many of her loved ones, but she couldn’t leave the cause of women’s suffrage for long. Over the next several years, Catt once again took up the mantle, raising her strong voice and lending her enviable organizational skills to lead the long slog of state-by-state efforts to pass women’s suffrage slowly across the nation. By 1912, women had won full voting rights in nine states.
In December 1915, Catt, with some reluctance, again assumed the leadership of NAWSA. At the time, NAWSA and the Congressional Union (CU) led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were engaged in an on-going struggle over strategy, tactics, and goals. Catt took over NAWSA from Anna Howard Shaw, who did not seem up to this major challenge. By August 1916, in the NAWSA newsletter, Catt had declared the woman suffrage movement “in crisis” and at a crossroads; and at the NAWSA Convention the next month she unveiled her “Winning Plan.” In essence, the plan was a two-pronged approach that would strive for a federal constitutional amendment while continuing an aggressive state-by-state strategy to build support for future ratification. By this time, Catt was a familiar figure in the women’s suffrage movement, known for her political savvy, soaring oratory, and effective organizational skills.
Catt’s second term as president of NAWSA coincided with a split in the national leadership of the women’s suffrage movement over strategies and tactics. Since 1912, Alice Paul had led a subcommittee of NAWSA, the Congressional Committee, focused solely on seeking a federal constitutional amendment. Eventually, the committee broke off from NAWSA entirely, becoming the Congressional Union (CU), and then the more militant National Woman’s Party (NWP). The NWP’s smaller membership tended to be drawn from the younger generation, most of whom were impatient with the slow progress of the decades-long struggle for women’s suffrage. Paul designed bold campaigns intended to gain publicity and provoke discussion.
Catt and the NAWSA leadership held the more pragmatic belief that there were better ways to influence both public opinion and President Wilson, judging Paul and the NWP leaders misguided in their tactics, particularly once the U.S. entered the Great War. Catt clashed publicly with Paul when she resumed the leadership of NAWSA. She even stormed out of one unsuccessful meeting with Paul, delivering a famous parting shot, “I will fight you to the last ditch!” Amidst these on-going struggles within the movement, Catt’s proven leadership methods eventually contributed to a highly significant victory in the East. In 1917, after multiple failed attempts, New York voters finally approved a suffrage referendum -- a huge win for the cause as New York was the most populated and the first Eastern state to approve women’s suffrage. The campaign for the New York referendum had been outlined by Catt as a key step in her “Winning Plan,” and she used the win to propel the federal amendment forward.
At this point, the United States had entered World War I. As national priorities shifted, suffragists feared that wartime mobilization would derail the already internally conflicted suffrage movement. In a controversial move, Catt, who was a pacifist, encouraged NAWSA members to support the war effort and, by extension, President Wilson. Her hope was to showcase NAWSA suffragists’ patriotism; indeed, NAWSA’s wartime commitment to “suffrage and service” won Catt the support of many politicians. Although she advocated for many causes, none was more important to her than getting women the right to vote. Her single-mindedness of purpose led to another, even more controversial move on Catt’s part in the final, desperate years of the struggle for suffrage – her apparent betrayal of black suffragists during the campaigns to get the 19th Amendment through Congress and then ratified by the necessary 36 states.
Since the 1890s, NAWSA had been cutting the suffrage movement’s historical ties, first to the abolitionist movement and then to the struggle for African Americans’ voting rights. As the fight for a federal amendment became increasingly desperate, white suffrage leaders demonstrated a chilling willingness to employ racially inflammatory arguments and rhetoric. At one point, while lobbying Southern senators for their votes in Congress, Catt famously claimed, “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” Historians debate whether her comments were strategically made in an attempt to win votes in the Senate or were indicative of a personal, deep-seated racism. During Catt’s long suffrage career, she spoke in African-American churches and clubs, contributed to The Crisis (the magazine of the NAACP), and received encomiums from both W.E.B. DuBois and Mary Church Terrell (first president of the National Association of Colored Women) for her lack of racial prejudice. Historians also point to public comments reflecting an inclusive vision of women’s voting rights: “Just as the world war is no white man's war, but every man's war, so is the struggle for woman suffrage no white woman's struggle, but every woman's struggle.” Whatever her personal views, Catt undoubtedly used racist arguments in the final push to win passage of the 19th Amendment.
Historians acknowledge such inconsistencies; they are part of later generations’ struggle to tell an honest, inclusive history of the movement. As historian Margaret Bilkert Andolsen put it, white suffrage leaders “did not passively condone Southern segregation practices and actively manipulate racist ideology solely, or even primarily, because of personal bad intentions. [They] made their strategic choices …within the context of a racist society that put intense political pressure upon them. In a racist society these women had severely limited choices. They did, however, have the option of actively resisting racism, although at the likely cost of a significant delay in obtaining woman suffrage." The choice to “actively resist racism,” is one Catt failed to make in the final years of the suffrage campaign. One might imagine she struggled with the dilemma of whether it is ever ethical to go against one’s personal beliefs in order to achieve a greater good. As she wrote in her short speech on the day of the ratification of the 19th Amendment: “Women have undergone agony of soul which you may never comprehend, in order that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom.”
In the end, Wilson threw his support behind women’s suffrage and called on Congress to pass the federal amendment. Proving the wisdom of Catt’s wartime strategy, Wilson tied his support of the proposed suffrage amendment to America’s involvement in World War I and women’s contributions to the war effort. As reported in The New York Times on October 1, 1918, Wilson said, “I regard the extension of suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged.” The U.S. House passed the amendment twice, first in 1918, then again in 1919. Only in 1919 did the U.S. Senate concur. Finally, on June 4, 1919, the Senate, by the required two-thirds majority, approved the 19th Amendment, sending it to the states for ratification. It was now up to suffrage leaders like Catt to build enough support to ratify the amendment in the necessary three-quarters of the states.
After close to a century of struggle and with the end finally in sight, Catt and her allied suffragists pushed ratification forward, state-by-state. By March of 1920, 35 states had ratified the amendment. They only needed one more. For a number of reasons, it came down to Tennessee. Catt would later describe the fight in Tennessee as the toughest and most volatile of her suffrage career. She spent several weeks in Tennessee, where pro- and anti-suffrage groups were in full force. The fight was fierce, but in the end, the state ratified the suffrage amendment on August 18, 1920. Twenty-four-year-old Republican State Representative Harry T. Burn, who had initially opposed the amendment, cast the deciding vote. He had a letter in his pocket from his mother which included the admonition: “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Thomas Catts (sic) with her ‘Rats.’ Is she the one who put ‘rat’ in ratification? Ha!”
As the 19th Amendment was wending its way through the constitutional process, Catt and NAWSA founded the League of Women Voters to foster education in citizenship and especially to ensure that women were prepared to vote in the first election in which many were newly eligible to do so. She devoted the rest of her life to working on citizenship issues, fighting for women’s suffrage around the globe, and promoting the cause of world peace.
Carrie Chapman Catt died on March 9, 1947, at her home in New Rochelle, New York. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried alongside her longtime companion and friend Mary Garrett Hay at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City. The two women met in 1895 and became fast friends and companions. Hay, who never married, left her home state of Indiana that same year to follow Catt to New York City and to work alongside her in the movement. After George Catt’s death, the women lived together for over 20 years at Juniper Ledge, their shared home in Briarcliff Manor, New York, until Hay’s death in 1928 at the age of 71. They worked together for the cause of women’s rights for nearly 40 years. In this final significant relationship of Catt’s life, she demonstrated her unwavering commitment to a woman’s right to live a life of her choice and to women’s equality. Catt’s and Hay’s shared headstone reads, “Here lie two, united in friendship for 38 years through constant service to a great cause.”
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt was not alone in fighting for women’s suffrage, but she was a fierce force behind its success. Catt was not perfect, and she was undoubtedly a product of her time, her race, and her class status. She was a wealthy, white woman of privilege and education who could have spent her life focused exclusively on self-gratification and self-centered pursuits that benefited no one. But she recognized a gross injustice early in her life and she chose to fight against it in the best ways she knew how. She, with countless other little-known heroines of this epic struggle for human rights, gave her life to that fight and should be remembered for this extraordinary achievement as the nation commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment. With her steadfast dedication, her sharp intellect, her political savvy, and her strong voice, the indignant little girl from Iowa helped to change the world.
Contributing Authors’ Biographies
Laurel Bower is a Producer/Director for Iowa PBS, where she has produced programs and documentaries for 25 years. Her latest documentary is entitled Carrie Chapman Catt: Warrior for Women. It premiered on Iowa PBS in May 2020 and is currently being distributed to other PBS stations nationwide. Kathleen Grathwol is a former professor of English and Women’s Studies, specializing in 18th-century British literature. She taught for a number of years at Suffolk University in Boston and at Howard University in Washington, DC. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles and has been the recipient of fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, New York University, and Suffolk University. She currently runs her own consulting company and works as an education consultant, writer, and editor. Contributing Editor Anne M. Boylan is Professor Emerita of History and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of scholarly articles and four books: Sunday School: The Formation of An American Institution, 1790-1880 (Yale University Press 1988); The Origins of Women’s Activism: New York and Boston, 1797-1840 (University of North Carolina Press 2002); Women’s Rights in the United States: A History in Documents (Oxford University Press 2015); and Votes for Delaware Women (University of Delaware Press, forthcoming).
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 Before becoming a state in 1889, South Dakota Territory had twice come very close to ratifying full women’s suffrage. The measure lost by one vote in 1875, and was again defeated after passage in the territorial legislature by a gubernatorial veto in 1885.
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