Carrie Chapman Catt (1859 – 1947) was a women’s suffrage leader who worked tirelessly to get the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution passed. She was President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and was the founder of the League of Women Voters and the International Alliance of Women.
Catt was born Carrie Clinton Lane in Wisconsin on January 9, 1859. She moved to Iowa at a young age, and graduated from Iowa State College (later Iowa State University) after only three years. Catt was the only woman and was the class valedictorian. She became a teacher, and then in 1883 (at the age of 24) Superintendent of Schools in Mason City, Iowa. In 1885, Catt married Leo Chapman, the editor of the Mason City Republican. Because married women were not allowed to teach she left her job and began writing a “Woman’ World” column for the paper, in which she addressed women’s political and labor issues and also encouraged women to become active in the struggle to obtain the right to vote. Catt’s husband, Leo Chapman, died the year following their marriage of typhoid fever.
In 1887 Catt joined the Iowa branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and became head of its suffrage section. When the local group began falling apart, Catt started organizing women and creating suffrage clubs. In 1889 she was elected secretary of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association and the following year she was a delegate and speaker at the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in Washington, D.C..
In 1890 Catt married George Catt, somebody she knew from her college days at Iowa State College, in Seattle, Washington. Her new husband encouraged her work on behalf of women’s suffrage. George Catt’s work as an engineer required him to travel extensively; Carrie accompanied him and continued her work “on the road”. Carrie also travelled frequently on her own, organizing women in states where women’s right to vote was coming up on the ballot. Unfortunately, the suffrage movement had few victories. However, in 1893 they had a major victory in Colorado when it became the first state to vote in favor of women’s suffrage. (Wyoming had, in 1890, when it achieved statehood, entered the Union as a full suffrage state.)
In 1892 George moved his business to New York, and Carrie continued her activities there. In 1900, Susan B. Anthony, at age 80, resigned as president of NAWSA, Carrie was elected to succeed her; she held that position until 1904, when she resigned due to her own exhaustion and her husband’s poor health. During this period, Carrie also founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) which held its first congress in Washington, D.C. in 1902. Member countries were Australia, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Norway, Sweden and the United States. Carrie was elected its first president and served in that capacity until 1923.
George died in 1905. His death was followed by that of Susan B. Anthony in 1906, and Carrie’s brother, then mother, in 1907. Carrie was overwhelmed with grief and lost interest in her work. Her doctor suggested she travel abroad which she did for many years, during which time she primarily worked on IWSA activities. She did however, accept the vice presidency of the NAWSA under Dr. Anna Howard Shaw from 1905 to 1915.
Between 1893, when Colorado voted for women’s suffrage, and 1915 there were some victories in a few states. However, what was needed to obtain national suffrage was a favorable vote in the most populous state, New York. Catt led the Empire State Campaign Committee with the slogan “Victory in 1915”. She established a campaign school to train volunteers and made sure that there were volunteers in every precinct in the state. They lost in 1915, but rallied back from defeat with the slogan “Victory in 1917” when they did win.
With the start of World War I the activities of the IWSA were suspended. Catt was a lifelong pacifist and she founded the Women’s Peace Party in 1915. She continued to focus on suffrage issues however, as she firmly believed that the goal of world peace would be much more likely if women could vote.
In 1914, Mrs. Frank Leslie died, bequeathing Catt about $2 million with the intent that it be used to get a women’s suffrage amendment passed in the United States. Leslie’s relatives contested the will, but Catt eventually prevailed, but with legal fees and court costs eating up a large portion of the bequest. In 1917, Catt received a little less than $978,000.00 which she put into the Leslie Women’s Suffrage Commission, Inc.; the funds of the Leslie Commission were used solely to advance the vote for suffrage in New York and to advance the sentiments in favor of suffrage nationwide.
The war ended in 1918, and Catt resumed her efforts towards a Constitutional Amendment giving women the right to vote. With sentiments greatly in favor of the Amendment, Congress passed it but 36 states needed to ratify it. In March, 1919 Catt founded the League of Women Voters at the NAWSA 50th Anniversary Convention. The League, with its purpose to being to educate women to be informed voters, became the successor to NAWSA. Catt was the League’s honorary president for the remainder of her life.
On August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. With that victory, Catt again focused on the work of the IWSA and world peace. Catt resigned as president of IWSA in 1923, by which time 25 of the 43 member countries had women’s suffrage. Catt devoted the rest of her life to world peace, campaigning for the United States to participate in the League of Nations, and in 1925 helping to establish the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (CCCW), which, by 1930 had over 8 million women members.
In 1933, with Hitler rising to power in Germany, Catt helped found the Protest Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany. She also lobbied Congress to change immigration laws to help refugees escape. Also in 1933, Catt became the first women to receive the American Hebrew Medal.
When World War II broke out, Catt was 80 years old. While she was no longer able to be out in public campaigning, she continued writing letters urging help for war refugees and also promoting world peace after the war was over. On March 9, 1947, Catt died. By the time of her death, in most of the world’s developed countries women had equal voting rights with men.
OTHER JANUARY 9 BIRTHDAYS
- January 9, 1897 (1994) – Felisa Rincon De Gautier, appointed Mayor of San Juan in 1946 and re-elected until 1969, she was the first Latin American woman mayor. Rincon created elder-care centers, distributed clothes and food, encouraged women to participate in the economy
- January 9, 1908 (1986) – Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer, philosopher, political activist and feminist. Her 1949 work, The Second Sex, gave a detailed analysis of the oppression of women and served as a foundation for contemporary feminism.
- January 9, 1941 – Joan Baez, folk singer and songwriter, supporter of human and civil rights, peace activist, founded the Humanitas International Human Rights Committee (1979). See: https://centraloregoncoastnow.org/2013/01/09/happy-birthday-joan-baez/
–Nancy Campbell Mead