Carrie Chapman Catt
DATE OF BIRTH: January 9, 1859
PLACE OF BIRTH: Ripon, Wisconsin
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Carrie Clinton Lane was the second of three children (the only daughter) born to Lucius and Maria (Clinton) Lane. Her parents were both high school graduates (unusual for that time) from West Potsdam, New York, and migrated west in 1855 soon after their wedding. They first lived in Cleveland, Ohio, with Lucius buying a partnership in a coal business. They found they didn’t like city life so they moved to Ripon, Wisconsin, where Lucius worked as a farmer. In 1866, when Carrie was seven years old, they moved to Charles City, Iowa.
EDUCATION: Carrie attended elementary education in a one-room schoolhouse in Charles City. In 1877, she graduated from high school. Her father refused to provide the money for more education so Carrie taught school for a year, earning enough income to enter Iowa State Agricultural College. During her two years there, she supported herself working in the state library and the college kitchen. She graduated in 1880 – the only woman among 18 graduates.
She aspired to become a lawyer so she began reading law in an attorney’s offices in Charles City. The next year, she began teaching high school in Mason City, Iowa, with the intent of earning enough money to study law at the university. However, she found she enjoyed teaching so much she gave up the idea of becoming a lawyer. Less than two years later, she was appointed principal and superintendent of Mason City schools.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: When Carrie was 13 years old, she asked why her mother was not getting dressed up to go to town to vote like her father and his hired man. Her sincere question was met with laughter and the reason that voting was too important a civic duty to leave to women. That day was to be a turning point in her life. Another important point came in high school when she was introduced to Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Already skeptical of traditional religion, yet retaining faith in human potential, Carrie embraced this philosophy – seeing evolutionary science as offering the idea of a constantly evolving and improving world, moving toward a free and peaceful society. Both of these events laid the groundwork for Carrie’s life work.
On February 12, 1885, Carrie married Leo Chapman, editor of the Mason City Republican, and she resigned from teaching (as married women were not allowed to teach). She became his business partner, writing a “Woman’s World” column – but not about food or fashion, rather about women’s political and labor issues, and reminding women that if they wanted the vote, they needed to organize. After Leo harshly criticized a local Republican candidate in the paper, he was sued for libel and had to sell the newspaper. In May 1886, he went to San Francisco to find work. However, he caught typhoid fever. Carrie received a telegram about him and left immediately by train, but Leo died before she arrived. She was only 27 years old.
Left with no house or financial resources, Carrie decided to stay in San Francisco, finding work as a freelance journalist. She was barely making ends meet when one evening a male associate grabbed her and began kissing her. She managed to break away, but the assault left her feeling frightened and outraged – and determined to do something about the vulnerability of working women. She did, however, meet up with a former college student, George Catt, who had become a civil engineer with a bridge-building company. Possibly it was George who inspired Carrie to become a public lecturer, her next career. It was popular at the time and could provide a good living, so she prepared three speeches and, after hiring an agent, began perfecting them along the West Coast.
In 1887, Carried returned to Iowa and began her work for suffrage. She joined the Iowa branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, becoming head of its suffrage section. As that local group began breaking apart, she began organizing women and creating suffrage clubs. In 1889, she was elected secretary of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association and, the next year, was a delegate and minor speaker at the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in Washington, D.C. (From 1869 until 1890, the women’s suffrage movement had been divided between two organizations – one headed by Lucy Stone and Henry B. Blackwell, and the other by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – which had differing methods of achieving their goal; they reconciled differences into NAWSA.)
On June 10, 1890, Carrie married George Catt in Seattle, Washington. This did not end her suffrage career. As she said, “My husband used to say that he was as much of a reformer as I, but that he couldn’t work at reforming and earn a living at the same time; but what he could do was to earn living enough for two and free me from all economic burden, and thus I could reform for two.” His work required him to travel about the country, so Carried also accompanied him, but she also traveled on her own to states before an upcoming vote on women’s suffrage, organizing women to campaign. Unfortunately, victory eluded the suffragists. In 1893, they had a major victory when Colorado became the first state, by vote, to allow women suffrage. (Wyoming was the only other state granting women the vote, when admitted into the Union in 1890 as a full-adult suffrage state.) Carrie worked tirelessly on the Colorado victory, as she did all across the country. When she became too exhausted and ill to lecture or travel, she wrote articles from her bed. George moved his business to New York in 1892.
In 1900, Susan B. Anthony, at 80 years old, retired as president of NAWSA and Carrie was elected her successor; a position she held until 1904. In 1902, in a speech before NAWSA, she said:
“The world taught women nothing skillful and then said her work was valueless. It permitted her no opinions and said she did not know how to think. It forbade her to speak in public and said the sex had no orators. It denied her the schools, and said the sex had no genius. It robbed her of every vestige of responsibility, and then called her weak. It taught her that every pleasure must come as a favor from men and when, to gain it, she decked herself in paint and fine feathers, as she had been taught to do, it called her vain.”
She also founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), which was officially recognized at a congress held in Washington, D.C., in 1902. Australia, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Norway, Sweden and the U.S. were affiliated with it. Carrie was elected its first president and served until 1923.
Unfortunately, George’s health had been deteriorating for some years, and with her own physical exhaustion, Carrie resigned as president of NAWSA in 1904. The next year, in October, George passed away, leaving her devastated. Then other deaths followed: Susan B. Anthony in February 1906, her younger brother William in September 1907, and her mother in December 1907. Carrie was grief-stricken and had lost all interest in suffrage work. Her doctor and friends encouraged her to travel abroad and she did, for several years, primarily working on IWSA activities. She did accept the vice-presidency of NAWSA, under Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, who served from 1905 to 1915, but still devoted most of her energy to IWSA until the onset of World War I.
In April 1911, Carrie began a world tour – through Sweden, Europe, Africa, India, Sumatra, the Philippines, China, Korea and Japan, among others – founding suffrage organizations and observing the conditions of women. Here and there she found strongholds of feminism. Upon returning, she said she and her companions “left the seeds of revolution behind us, and the hope of liberty in many souls. But we have got much more than we gave – an experience so upsetting to all our preconceived notions that it is difficult to estimate its influence upon us.”
In the meantime, NAWSA had some victories: Idaho voted for women suffrage in 1896; Washington, 1910; California, 1911; three other Western states in 1912; and Illinois, the first victory east of the Mississippi, in 1913. But to reach their goal of a national amendment, they needed a victory in the most populous state in the union: New York. Carrie led the Empire State Campaign Committee with the slogan, “Victory in 1915.” To make sure everyone was aware of their cause, she established a school to train volunteers in organization, public speaking, parliamentary practice and suffrage history, and made sure workers were assigned to every voting precinct in the state. When they failed to gain victory in 1915, they rallied again with the slogan, “Victory in 1917,” and did win.
In 1915, Dr. Shaw resigned as president of NAWSA, and Carrie was again pressured to lead the organization. It was in disarray and members hoped she could save it. She reassumed the position, but was torn between her interests in suffrage and world peace. With World War I beginning, IWSA activities were suspended, leaving Carrie free to lead the New York campaign. A lifetime pacifist, she had helped establish the Woman’s Peace Party early in 1915, although she still focused on suffrage issues, believing the potential for world peace would be much greater after women could vote.
On September 18, 1914, Mrs. Frank Leslie (Miriam Florence Follin Leslie) passed away and bequeathed about $2 million to Carrie personally, with the intent to get women’s suffrage approved in the U.S. Miriam’s husband had died years before, leaving her a nearly bankrupt publishing business, so she legally changed her name to Frank and, through shrewd business dealings, rebuilt her husband’s publications empire into a fortune. Of course, various family members disputed the will (and many had been purposely excluded from her husband’s earlier will). When Carrie was pressured by the lawyers to compromise on settlements to the contestants, rather than go through lengthy and costly legal court battles, she wrote to her attorney:
“I ask myself what right have I, to whom Mrs. Leslie entrusted the residue of her estate, to be used for a certain purpose, to begin by giving a large portion of it to people whom she distinctly and deliberately intended should not have it. The duty imposed upon me is not a pleasant one and is likely to be accompanied by no little trouble and expense. Yet my conscience tells me that a principle is at stake, and that since the trust has been given me I have no right not to act in accordance with my best judgment and conscience.”
On February 1, 1917, after long legal battles and some compromises, eating up much of the bequest in legal fees, Carrie received $977,875.02. She put all of it into the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission, Inc., to administer the fortune – sending suffrage material to newspapers, magazines and activists in an avalanche of articles and information. It turned a stalled movement into an avalanche of pressure, helping them win the New York victory in November 1917. Almost overnight, sentiment for the suffragists doubled.
In 1916, at a NAWSA convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Carrie unveiled her “Winning Plan.” It involved campaigning simultaneously for suffrage on both state and federal levels, and compromising for partial suffrage in resistant states. She ended her speech with these words:
"Do not stand in the way of the next step in human progress. No one living who reads the signs of the times but realizes that woman suffrage must come. We are working for the ballot as a matter of justice and as a step for human betterment."
In 1917, with World War I looming on the horizon, Carrie announced NAWSA’s support of President Wilson, even volunteering their services to the government if it should participate in the war. Despite shocking her pacifist friends and the Woman’s Peace Party (which denounced her actions), it was a politically astute move. It seems she might have come to believe the war was necessary (after her travels in Europe), but also, by helping the president and government through NAWSA’s over two million members, she knew she could call on him later for his personal attention in their cause. If NAWSA had been openly and actively opposed to the war, they could have lost the precious influence they had fought so hard to achieve.
The war ended in 1918, with Carrie campaigning as vigorously as ever for the national amendment. Congress by now had seen the handwriting on the wall and had passed the federal amendment, but 36 states still needed to ratify it. By March, 1919, sensing victory, she established the League of Women Voters (LWV) at the NAWSA 50th Anniversary, “Jubilee Convention,” in St. Louis. It would be NAWSA’s successor and would help educate women to become informed voters. Carrie served as honorary president for the rest of her life. In the spring of 1920, 35 states had ratified the amendment. All suffrage effort concentrated on winning that 36th state. Finally, on August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it and the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution.
Carrie again focused on the IWSA and world peace. By the time she resigned as president of IWSA in 1923, at age 64, the Rome Congress included delegates from 43 countries, and in 25 of those countries women had equal suffrage (many extended during or immediately after World War I). That same year, she also published “Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement” with Nettie Rogers Shuler. From this point on, she devoted the rest of her life to world peace. From the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, Native American wars, and “The Great War” (World War I), Carrie had seen much devastation. She hated war and was determined to do what she could to prevent any more conflicts.
She campaigned for American participation in the League of Nations (and later the United Nations), and lectured at every possible opportunity for peace. In 1925, she helped establish the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (CCCW), serving as chair until 1932. With many members coming from major women’s organizations, the new one quickly had over five million members. By 1930, over eight million women had joined. During the “Red Scare” following Russia’s revolution, Carrie’s pacifism and promotion of improved international relations made her a target of ‘super-patriotic’ groups, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, who accused her of being a Communist sympathizer. The accusations were unfounded; even Eleanor Roosevelt and social worker Jane Addams were similarly accused.
Unfortunately, the winds of war were again stirring. In 1933, with Hitler’s rise and the Nazi Party persecutions, Carrie helped establish the Protest Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany. They obtained thousands of signatures to a letter protesting the crimes against the Jews. She also lobbied Congress to amend the U.S. immigration laws to help Jews and other refugees escape. That same year, honoring her work, Carrie received the American Hebrew Medal – the first woman to do so.
She was 80 years old when World War II broke out. Her age and health prevented her from publicly campaigning any more, but she continued corresponding with influential people about helping war refugees and maintaining peace after the war. During her 40 years of continuous office-holding in all the varying organizations, she had never received a salary from any source at any time. On March 9, 1947, at the age of 88, Carrie Chapman Catt died of a heart attack in her home in New Rochelle, New York. By that time, women in most developed countries around the world had equal voting rights.
DATE OF DEATH: March 9, 1947
PLACE OF DEATH: New Rochelle, New York
Women in History. Carrie Chapman Catt biography. Last Updated: 3/9/2010. Lakewood Public Library. Date accessed 3/14/2010 . http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/catt-car.htm