Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) was a trailblazing American suffragist, political strategist and visionary leader who devoted her life to the women’s rights cause and was a major force behind the passage of the 19th Amendment.
President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, co-founder of the Woman Suffrage Alliance, and founder of the League of Women Voters, Catt was also an international peace activist recognized as one of the suffragist movement’s most heroic icons.
Early Life, Education and Activism
Catt was born the middle child of three on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, Wisconsin, and grew up on a farm. She was taught to read by her educated mother and attended a one-room schoolhouse after her family moved to a new farm near Charles City, Iowa, following the Civil War, when Catt was 7.
Her parents, Maria Clinton and Lucius Lane, supported reform candidate Horace Greeley in the 1872 presidential election, and Catt’s interest in the women’s rights cause was sparked when she questioned why her mother was unable to cast her own vote.
“It was fate, not a career that took me in charge,” Catt reportedly said. “I could never forget that rank injustice to my mother. I verily believe I was born a suffragist.”
Catt attended the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm (now Iowa State University), graduating in 1880 with a Bachelor of Science degree in general science—the sole woman in her class. While there, she honed her public speaking skills by participating in debate and literary clubs.
After college, Catt briefly worked as a law clerk, and then as a teacher and principal in Mason City, Iowa. In 1883, she became one of the first women to hold the position of superintendent of schools there. Catt married Leo Chapman, editor and publisher of the Mason City Republican newspaper in 1885, and started writing a column on women’s political issues titled “Woman’s World.” Leo Chapman soon relocated to San Francisco for work, but died a year later from typhoid fever, days before Chapman arrived to join him.
Joining the Suffragist Movement
Catt moved back to Iowa in 1887, and joined the Iowa State Suffrage Association where she played a key role in organizing the first suffrage convention in the state and spoke at suffrage conventions and rallies across the nation. She also served as the group’s state organizer from 1890 to 1892.
In 1890, Catt married George Catt, a wealthy Iowa businessman, and joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), serving as a delegate at the group’s national convention.
Named head of field organizing in 1895, she succeeded Susan B. Anthony as the group’s president in 1900. In 1902, Catt helped found the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), which promoted women’s rights in more than 30 countries.
In 1904, Catt resigned as president of the NAWSA to care for her ill husband, who died following a sudden illness in 1905. Between his death and that of Anthony the next year, she decided to take time to travel abroad, serving several years as the IWSA president and promoting the women’s rights cause to other nations. She played a role in organizing the International Congress of Women in 1915, held in The Hague, Netherlands. Attended by more than 1,000 women from across the world, it called for an end to the war and the establishment of a permanent international court that would settle disputes between nations.
A 'Winning' Plan
In 1915, Catt resumed her presidency with the NAWSA, a role she held until 1920, and organized the Women’s Peace Party with activist Jane Addams. She revealed her “Winning Plan” campaign during the NAWSA convention in 1916, which called for not only fighting for a woman’s right to vote on the federal level, but also on a state-by-state basis.
Catt’s campaign received a significant boost two years later, when President Woodrow Wilson gave his first public support to the cause.
“We have made partners of the women in this war,” he told Congress in 1918. “… Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
Catt on White Supremacy Arguments Against Suffrage
In 1917, Catt edited a guide for suffrage workers and included arguments often made against suffrage and how to address them. One of the arguments she addressed in the book was a concern among Southern white supremacists that suffrage could weaken the white vote by enfranchising Black women.
"White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by woman suffrage," Catt wrote, pointing out that Jim Crow voting restrictions would continue to apply to both women and men.
While Catt and others made this argument to garner support for suffrage, she, herself, did not support white supremecist ideologies. In fact, in a 2017 article she wrote for The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Catt argued, "there will never be a true democracy until every responsible and law-abiding adult in it, without regard to race, sex, color or creed has his or her own inalienable and unpurchasable voice in the government."
The 19th Amendment and Legacy
On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, granting women the right to vote and declaring that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
“The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guarantee of your liberty,” she said during a White House reception speech honoring the amendment’s passage. “That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. Women have suffered agony of soul which you never can comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom. That vote has been costly. Prize it. The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense, a prayer. Use it intelligently, conscientiously, prayerfully. Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act.”
Catt resigned as NAWSA president after the victory, and went on to establish the League of Women Voters in 1920, with the aim of promoting women’s participation in government and politics. She published a book, Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement, in 1923, and continued fighting for social justice causes throughout her life, advocating for child labor protections, disarmament and Jewish refugee relief.
Catt was awarded the Chi Omega National Achievement Award in 1940 by her friend Eleanor Roosevelt, and was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. The League of Women Voters remains an active nonpartisan organization that works to protect and expand voting rights.
Catt died from heart failure at age 88 on March 9, 1947, in New Rochelle, New York. She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York, alongside her longtime friend and fellow suffragist, Mary Garrett Hay, who died in 1928. Catt’s estate was donated to Iowa State, where she was the first woman to deliver the commencement address, in 1921.
In 1995, an Iowa State campus building was renamed in her honor, and drew controversy due to her statements reassuring concerns of white supremacists as she tried to persuade Southern states to vote for women's suffrage.
“Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947),” Iowa State University Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics
Carrie Chapman Catt: A Life of Leadership by Nate Levin
"Carrie Chapman Catt," National Women's History Museum
“Carrie Chapman Catt,” Library of Congress
“Carrie Chapman Catt: The Woman of the Hour and Purp” Bill of Rights Institute