Biography of Carrie Chapman Catt, Suffragette, Activist, Feminist

Carrie Chapman Catt in the 1920s

Cincinnati Museum Center / Getty Images

Carrie Chapman Catt (January 9, 1859–March 9, 1947) was a teacher and journalist who was active in the woman's suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was the founder of the League of Women Voters and president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Fast Facts: Carrie Chapman Catt

  • Known For: Leader in the women's suffrage movement
  • Born: February 9, 1859 in Ripon, Wisconsin
  • Parents: Lucius Lane and Maria Clinton Lane
  • Died: March 9, 1947 in New Rochelle, New York
  • Education: Iowa State Agricultural College, B.S. in General Science, 1880
  • Spouse(s): Leo Chapman (m. 1885), George W. Catt (m. 1890–1905)
  • Children: None

Early Life

Carrie Chapman Catt was born Carrie Clinton Lane in Ripon, Wisconsin on February 9, 1859, the second child and only daughter of farmers Lucius and Maria Clinton Lane. Lucius had participated but did not find much luck in the California Gold Rush of 1850, returning to Cleveland Ohio and purchasing a coal business. He married Maria Clinton in 1855, and, discovering that he disliked cities, bought the Ripon farm. Their first child William was born there in 1856. Maria was outspoken and well-educated for the time, having attended Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.

When Carrie was 7, the family moved to a farm outside of Charles City, Iowa, building a new brick house. Carrie attended a one-room schoolhouse and then the Charles City high school. At the age of 13, she wanted to know why her mother wouldn't be voting in the presidential election of 1872: Her family laughed at her: women weren't allowed to vote in the United States at the time. In her early teens she wanted to become a doctor and began bringing live reptiles and insects into the house to study them, to the distress of her father. She borrowed and read Darwin's "Origin of Species" from a neighbor and wanted to know why her history book omitted all of that interesting information.

In 1877, Carrie attended Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), having saved up money to cover the room and board (about $150/year, and tuition was free) by teaching school in the summers. While there, she organized a woman's military drill (there was one for men but not women) and won the right for women to speak at the Crescent Literary Society. She joined the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity—despite its name, it was coed. In November 1880 she graduated with a bachelor's degree in the General Science Course for Women, making her the only woman in a class of 18. She started her journalism career by writing in the Iowa Homestead magazine about the drudgery of housework.

Carrie Lane began reading law with a Charles City attorney, but in 1881 she received an offer to teach in Mason City, Iowa and she accepted.

Professional Life and Marriage

Two years later in 1883, she became superintendent of schools in Mason City. In February 1885, she married newspaper editor and publisher Leo Chapman (1857–1885) and became co-editor of the newspaper. After Leo was accused of criminal libel later that year, the Chapmans planned to move to California. Just after he arrived, and while his wife was on her way to join him, he caught typhoid fever and died, leaving his new wife to make her own way. She found work in San Francisco as a newspaper reporter.

She soon joined the woman suffrage movement as a lecturer and moved back to Iowa, where she joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. In 1890, she was a delegate at the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association.

In 1890 she married wealthy engineer George W. Catt (1860–1905), whom she had originally met in college and saw him again during her time in San Francisco. They signed a prenuptial agreement, which guaranteed her two months in the spring and two in the fall for her suffrage work. He supported her in these efforts, considering that his role in the marriage was to earn their living and hers was to reform society. They had no children.

National and International Suffrage Role

Her effective organizing work brought her quickly into the inner circles of the suffrage movement. Carrie Chapman Catt became head of field organizing for the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1895 and in 1900, having earned the trust of the leaders of that organization, including Susan B. Anthony, was elected to succeed Anthony as president.

Four years later, Catt resigned the presidency to care for her husband, who died in 1905—Rev. Anna Shaw took over her role as NAWSA president. Carrie Chapman Catt was a founder and president of the International Woman Suffrage Association, serving from 1904 to 1923 and until her death as honorary president.

In 1915, Catt was re-elected to the presidency of the NAWSA, succeeding Anna Shaw, and led the organization in fighting for suffrage laws at both the state and federal levels. She opposed the efforts of the newly active Alice Paul to hold Democrats in office responsible for the failure of woman suffrage laws, and to work only at the federal level for a constitutional amendment. This split resulted in Paul's faction leaving the NAWSA and forming the Congressional Union, later the Woman's Party.

Role in Final Passage of Suffrage Amendment

Her leadership was key in the final passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920: without the state reforms—an increased number of states in which women could vote in primary elections and regular elections—the 1920 victory could not have been won.

Also key was the bequest in 1914 of Mrs. Frank Leslie (Miriam Folline Leslie) of nearly a million dollars, given to Catt to support the suffrage effort.

Legacy and Death

Carrie Chapman Catt was one of the founders of the Women's Peace Party during World War I and helped organize the League of Women Voters after the passage of the 19th Amendment (she served the League as honorary president until her death). She also supported the League of Nations after World War I and the founding of the United Nations after World War II. Between the wars, she worked for Jewish refugee relief efforts and child labor protection laws. When her husband died, she went to live with a longtime friend and fellow suffragist Mary Garrett Hay. They moved to New Rochelle, New York, where Catt died in 1947.

When measuring the organizational contributions of the many workers for woman suffrage, most would credit Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone with having the most influence in winning the vote for American women. The effect of this victory was then felt worldwide, as women in other nations were inspired directly and indirectly to win the vote for themselves.

Recent Controversy

In 1996, when Iowa State University (Catt's alma mater) proposed to name a building after Catt, controversy broke out over racist statements that Catt had made in her lifetime, including stating that "white supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women's suffrage." The discussion highlights issues about the suffrage movement and its strategies to win support in the South.

Sources

  • Laurence, Frances. "Maverick Women: 19th Century Women Who Kicked over the Traces." Manifest Publications, 1998. 
  • Peck, Mary Gray. "Carrie Chapman Catt, Pioneers of the Woman's Movement." Literary Licensing, 2011. 
  • "Suffragette's Racial Remark Haunts College." The New York Times, May 5, 1996. 
  • Van Voris, Jacqueline. "Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life." New York: The Feminist Press, 1996.