Activist Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) was instrumental to the cause that brought equal voting rights to U.S. citizens. A teacher and then superintendent of schools in Iowa, Catt became involved in the women’s suffrage movement in the 1880s. She served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1900 to 1904 and again from 1915 to 1920, spearheading the movement with her ability to organize campaigns, mobilize volunteers and deliver effective speeches. Shortly before the suffragists celebrated victory with passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Catt founded the League of Women Voters.
The triumph of woman’s suffrage in the United States in 1920 was very much the work of Carrie Catt. A brilliant strategist, she was twice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (nawsa), first from 1900 to 1904 and then in the dramatic final years of the struggle, from 1915 to 1920.
Catt, born Carrie Lane in Ripon, Wisconsin, spent most of her youth in Iowa, where she went to college. She became a teacher and then superintendent of schools in Mason City in 1883. This was an unusual achievement for a woman of that day, but no great surprise to those who knew her. Bright, resilient, and self-confident, she never acceded to conventions that made no sense to her.
In 1885 Catt married newspaper editor Leo Chapman, but he died in California soon after, leaving her far from home with no resources. Eventually she landed on her feet but only after some harrowing experiences in the male working world. In 1890 she married George Catt, a wealthy engineer. Their marriage allowed her to spend a good part of each year on the road campaigning for woman’s suffrage, a cause she had become involved in in Iowa in the late 1880s.
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Catt rose rapidly in suffrage ranks. Over time she became a close colleague of Susan B. Anthony, who selected Catt to succeed her as head of the nawsa. Catt led the movement over the next twenty years, struggling against great odds and many frustrating setbacks. In Catt’s approach to politics, organization was the watchword and she was superb at it. From her first endeavors in Iowa in the 1880s to her last in Tennessee in 1920, Catt supervised dozens of campaigns, mobilized numerous volunteers (1 million by the end), and made hundreds of speeches. She made skilled use of communication and publicity, fashioning disciplined campaigns and building a highly effective machine.
Catt believed it was woman’s natural right to participate in politics on an equal basis with men. If women could vote, she argued, they would become a force for world peace and would help improve the conditions of life for themselves and their children. Above all, she was concerned with women’s dignity. Angry that women had no control over their lives, she felt that political participation would give them a voice in decisions affecting them, enhancing their dignity as human beings.
One of Catt’s overriding goals was that of world peace, a cause she pursued throughout her life. Another was that the political process should be rational and issue-oriented, dominated by citizens, not politicians. To that end, she founded the League of Women Voters in 1920. It remains something of a monument to her ideals, devoting itself to issues and placing what it considers the public interest over partisan politics. Catt was proud of her role in this organization until the end of her life.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.