Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Carrie Chapman Catt: Suffragist, Political Activist, Organizer

Carrie Chapman Catt (co-founder, International Woman Suffrage Alliance, 3 June 1904)

Born on 9 January 1859 in Wisconsin, Carrie Clinton Lane played an important part in the American suffrage movement after becoming involved in 1887, though her role and views are not without controversy.

Carrie Chapman Catt,
As Carrie Lane, she attended Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), one of only six women in her class of twenty-seven. After her graduation in 1880, she worked as a law clerk and a teacher before becoming the first female superintendent of schools in the district of Mason City, Iowa.

In 1885 she married Leo Chapman, editor and publisher of the Mason City Republican newspaper. Shortly after their marriage, he traveled to San Francisco, where he died.

Although Carrie Chapman was not with him on the trip, she arrived a few days later and decided to remain in San Francisco, where she worked as a newspaper reporter.

She returned to Charles City, Iowa, in 1887 and joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. In June 1990, she married George Catt, a wealthy engineer whom she had met in San Francisco (although he was, like his wife, a graduate of Iowa State Agricultural College). It was Catt who encouraged her to become involved in the suffrage movement at the national level.

Carrie Chapman Catt was an active member of the National American Women Suffrage Association and, in 1902, began working on the formation of an international women's group that would be formally constituted in Berlin on 3 June 1904, with Catt as the organization's first president. (The organization has been renamed several times since, and now is called the International Alliance of Women.)

New York Times, 1912
Catt continued her active political advocacy after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

After 1920, she helped to establish the League of Women Voters, and in 1923, with co-author Nettie Rogers Shuler, Catt published a history of the American suffrage movement, Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.

She took up the pursuit of child labor laws, was actively involved in peace movements during both world wars, protested against Hitler's persecutions of the Jews in the early 1930s, well before the war began, and after World War II worked on behalf of disarmament.

But her advocacy for women did involve her in controversy. After Elizabeth Cady Stanton published The Woman's Bible in 1895, Catt was among those who broke with the NAWSA over fear that Stanton's challenge to religion's conventional views of women would alienate women of faith. Catt also made statements that support white supremacy. For an excellent essay exploring the links between white supremacy and the suffrage movement, posted by the New York Historical Society Museum & Library, click here. (The essay includes information about Catt and her activities.) 

While she was married twice, Catt lived for more than twenty years with her domestic partner Mary Garrett Hay. Catt died on 9 March 1947, choosing to be buried alongside Hay rather than either of her husbands. The single monument marking their graves reads: "Here lie two, united in friendship for 38 years through constant service to a great cause."

Her role in developing the "winning plan" to pass the Nineteenth Amendment is portrayed in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels.

There are several biographies, but I like Jacqueline Van Voris's Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life, published by Feminist Press. You might also be interested in Nate Levin's biography for young-adult readers, Carrie Chapman Catt: A Life in Leadership.