Carrie Lane Chapman Catt
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt—an Iowa State alumna who devoted most of her life to the expansion of women’s rights around the world as well as international peace—is recognized as one of the key leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement. Her superb oratory and organizational skills led to ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote in August 1920.
Catt was born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, Wis., the second of three children of Lucius and Maria (Clinton) Lane. In 1866, at the close of the Civil War, the family moved to a farm near Charles City, Iowa. Catt entered Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa, in 1877 and completed a bachelor's degree in general science in 1880. She was the only woman in her graduating class. While at Iowa State, she established military drills for women and became the first female student to give an oration before a debating society. She worked her way through school by washing dishes, teaching, and serving as a librarian’s assistant. She also was a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority.
After graduating in 1880 with a bachelor’s degree in general science, Catt returned to Charles City to work as a law clerk and, in nearby Mason City, as a school teacher and principal. In 1883, at the age of 24, she was appointed Mason City school superintendent, one of the first women to hold such a position. In February 1885, she married Leo Chapman, publisher and editor of the Mason City Republican newspaper, at her parents’ Charles City farm.
Chapman died of typhoid fever the following year in San Francisco, Calif., where he had gone to seek new employment. Arriving just a few days after her husband’s death, the young widow decided to remain in San Francisco. In 1887, Catt returned to Iowa to begin her crusade for women’s suffrage. She joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, organized suffrage events throughout the state, and worked as a professional lecturer and writer.
In June 1890, she married wealthy engineer George W. Catt, whom she had first met in college at Iowa State and later during her time in San Francisco. He supported his wife’s suffrage work both financially and personally, believing that his role in the marriage was to earn their living and hers was to reform society. They had no children.
During this time, Catt also became active in the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was a delegate to its national convention in 1890, became head of field organizing in 1895, and was elected to succeed Susan B. Anthony as president in 1900. She continued to give speeches, plan campaigns, organize women and gain political expertise. Catt’s organizational, speaking and writing skills established her reputation as a leading suffragist.
From 1902-1904, Catt was a leader in the formation of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, serving as its president from 1904 to 1923 and thereafter as honorary chair until her death. Catt resigned as president of NAWSA in 1904 to care for her ailing husband. His death in October 1905—followed by the deaths of Susan B. Anthony (February 1906), her younger brother William (September 1907) and her mother (December 1907)—left Catt grief-stricken. Her doctor and friends encouraged her to travel abroad. She spent most of the following nine years promoting equal suffrage rights worldwide as IWSA president.
In 1915, Catt returned to the United States to resume the leadership of NAWSA, which had become badly divided over suffrage strategies. In 1916, Catt proposed her “Winning Plan” to campaign simultaneously for suffrage at both the state and federal levels. Key to the final campaign for the vote was a bequest Catt received in 1914 of more than $1 million by New York City magazine editor and publisher Miriam Folline Leslie “for the cause of Woman Suffrage.”
Under Catt’s leadership, several key states—including New York in 1917—approved women’s suffrage. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson converted to the cause of suffrage and supported a national constitutional amendment. Tireless lobbying by Catt and other suffragists, first in Congress and then in the state legislatures, finally produced a ratified 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.
In 1919, Catt proposed the creation of a nonpartisan educational organization for women voters and on February 14, 1920—six months before the 19th Amendment was ratified—the national League of Women Voters was organized in Chicago, IL. She was honorary president of the League for the rest of her life. The League remains active today and is frequently a training ground for women who later compete for electoral office. In 1923, Catt published “Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement” with Nettie R. Schuler.
In addition to her suffrage work, Catt was active in several other causes, including international peace. In January 1915, after the outbreak of World War I, she joined with Jane Addams to organize the Women’s Peace Party. In 1925, Catt founded the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and served as chair of the organization until 1932 and thereafter as honorary chair. She supported the League of Nations after World War I and the United Nations after World War II. Between the wars, she worked for Jewish refugee relief efforts and child labor protection laws.
On March 9, 1947, Catt died of heart failure at her home in New Rochelle, New York, where she had moved after her second husband’s death. She donated her entire estate to her alma mater, Iowa State, where, in 1921, she was the first woman to deliver a commencement address. She also delivered the commencement address at Iowa State in 1930.
Catt attained recognition for her work both during and after her lifetime. In 1926, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine and, in 1930, she received the Pictorial Review Award for her international disarmament work. In 1941, Catt received the Chi Omega award at the White House from her longtime friend Eleanor Roosevelt. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1975 and into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1992, Catt was named one of the 10 most important women of the century by the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation. At Iowa State, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics was founded in her honor in 1992 and the Old Botany building on central campus was renovated and renamed Carrie Chapman Catt Hall in 1995.
In the 72-year campaign to win women the right to vote in the United States, several generations of women contributed to the cause. Catt stands out for her superb organizational and oratory skills, which over the span of 33 years, helped unite efforts to work with both major political parties at the state and national levels to achieve women’s suffrage.
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