Carrie Chapman Catt

Carrie Chapman Catt (right) with Anna Howard Shaw, 1917. Public Domain, Bain Coll., LOC
Carrie Chapman Catt (right) with Anna Howard Shaw, 1917. Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

Quick Facts

Significance:
Suffragist, peace activist, co-founder League of Women Voters
Place of Birth:
Ripon, Wisconsin
Date of Birth:
January 9, 1859
Place of Death:
New Rochelle, NY
Date of Death:
March 9, 1947
Place of Burial:
Bronx, New York
Cemetery Name:
Woodlawn Cemetery

Carrie Chapman Catt was born on January 9, 1859 in Ripon, Wisconsin, the daughter of Lucius and Maria Clinton Lane. In 1866 the Lane family moved to a modest Victorian house on a farm near Charles City, Iowa.[1] Carrie Lane graduated from the Charles City High School in 1877 and immediately enrolled in the Iowa State College in Ames.[2] Her father, who was relunctant to have his daughter attend college, contributed only part of her expenses. To cover the rest of her expenses, Catt worked as a dishwasher, in the school library, and as a rural school teacher. Catt's activist personality was evident in college. While there, she started an all girls' debate club and advocated for women's participation in military drills. She graduated on November 10, 1880 with a Bachelor of Science degree -- the only woman in her graduating class.

After graduation, Catt worked as a law clerk and a teacher. In 1885, she was hired as superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa, the first woman to hold that position in the district. That year, she married Leo Chapman, a newspaper editor, and moved with him to San Francisco. He died in August 1886 of typhoid fever. Carrie moved back to Charles City, Iowa in 1887 and became involved in the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association.

In 1890, she married fellow Iowa State alum, George Catt. A wealthy engineer, he and Carrie agreed that she would spend at least four months each year on women’s suffrage efforts. From 1890 to 1892, she held office in the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, and became involved in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under its president, Susan B. Anthony. She spoke at the NAWSA convention in Washington, DC in 1890, and in 1892, addressed Congress on the proposed woman's suffrage amendment, at the invitation of Susan B. Anthony.

In 1900, Catt succeeded Anthony as president of NAWSA, serving until 1904 when she resigned to care for her ailing husband.
Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw took over as NAWSA president. After the death of her husband in 1905 and Susan B. Anthony in 1906, Catt again became involved in women’s suffrage and was re-elected president of NAWSA in 1915. She created the “Winning Plan,” a campaign to encourage each state to give women the right to vote and to urge Congress to pass an amendment to this effect. Membership in NAWSA grew to over two million by 1917. With Jane Addams, she founded the Woman’s Peace Party in 1915, but when the United States entered World War I in 1917, she threw herself into organizations supporting the war effort.

Those who fought for women's access to the ballot were not universally for civil rights; or who made arguments that they thought would sway particular audiences. In 1894, Catt warned that the United States was "menaced with great danger...in the votes posessed by the males in the slums of the cities and the ignorant foreign vote." Her solution was to "cut off the vote of the slums and give it to woman."[3] In 1919, she argued in Mississippi and South Carolina that, "white supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women's suffrage."[4] To complicate this even further, Catt also made inclusive statements about the vote:

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.

Everybody counts in applying democracy. And there will never be a true democracy until every law-abiding adult in it, without regard to race, sex, color or creed has his or her won inalienable and unpurchaseable voice in government.

In 1919, just after the 19th Amendment began its long ratification process, Catt bought Juniper Ledge in New Castle, New York. The rural home was, in Catt's description, a place to rest her "tired nerves." While living in this home with her partner of 20 years, Mary "Mollie" Garrett Hay (an active New York State suffragist), Catt began working on an idea for an organization called the League of Women Voters. She was also active in promoting the 19th Amendment; in the fall of 1919, she toured 13 states advocating for its ratification. In May of 1920, the amendment was passed by Congress and a cablegram from President Wilson congratulating her read, “Glory Hallelujah!”

After the passage of the 19th Amendment, Catt continued her work. From 1920-1922, Catt worked for suffrage in Europe and South America. In 1923 she started the organization called the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. She met Mussolini in Rome and made a strong, challenging suffrage speech directly to him. In the mid-1920s, Catt returned to her pre-war interest in peace, and in 1925 she founded the Committee for the Cause and Cure of War.

In 1928, Catt sold Juniper Ledge and she and her partner, Mary Garrett Hay (a New York State suffragist) moved to a colonial revival house in New Rochelle, New York. Hay died shortly after the move. From her New Rochelle home, Catt continued her activism with the help of her live-in assistant and companion, Alda Wilson. In 1933, Catt organized the Protest Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany, which sent a 9,000-signature petition to Hitler condemning violence and restrictive laws against German Jews. Catt and the organization also pressured the federal government to ease immigration laws to make it easier for Jews to find refuge in the United States.[5] For her work, she was the first woman to receive the American Hebrew Medal.

Catt died of a heart attack in her home on March 8, 1947. She was buried, at her request, in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City, beside Mary Hay, who had been her partner for decades.[6] 

Notes

[1] The Carrie Chapman Catt Childhood Home (officially known as the Lucius and Maria Clinton Lane House and also as the Carrie Lane Chapman Family Home) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 25, 1998.

[2] The Farm House (Knapp-Wilson House) is the oldest building on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Built in the first half of the 1860s, it was present when Carrie Chapman Catt attended the university. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966 and designated a National Historic Landmark on July 19, 1964.

[3] Bredbenner, 48.

[4] Munns

[5] Despite the efforts of Catt and others, public anti-immigration sentiment was strong. All of the bills that were proposed in Congress to aide refugees at the time were rejected. Holocaust Encyclopedia.

[6] Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 23, 2011.

Sources
Bredbenner, Candice Lewis. 1998. A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship. Berlekey: University of California Press.

Munns, Roger. 1996. "
University Honors Suffragette Despite Racism Charge," Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1996.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "
Holocaust Encyclopedia: United States Immigration and Refugee Law, 1921-1980." 

More Suffragists You Should Know banner

Last updated: June 27, 2019