In 2020 – America celebrated the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment – giving women the right to vote. But the work to win a woman’s right to vote actually began long before 1920. Held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, the Seneca Falls Convention was the first women’s rights convention in the United States – launching the women’s suffrage movement.
Between 1854 – 1869, lectures were a main form of entertainment, and female suffragists attracted curiosity.
Carrie Clinton Lane was born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, Wisconsin, the second of three children of Lucius and Maria Lane. In 1866, at the close of the Civil War, the family moved to a farm near Charles City, Iowa.
As a child, Carrie was interested in science and wanted to become a doctor. After graduating from high school (1877), she enrolled at Iowa State Agricultural College (ISU) in Ames. To pay her expenses, Catt worked as a dishwasher, in the school library, and as a teacher at rural schools during school breaks. She joined the Crescent Literary Society, a student organization aimed at advancing student learning skills and self-confidence. Although only men were allowed to speak in meetings, Carrie defied the rules and spoke up during a male debate. This started a discussion about women’s participation in the group and ultimately led to women gaining the right to speak in meetings. After four years at ISAC, Catt graduated on November 10, 1880, with a Bachelor of Science degree, the only woman in her graduating class.
After graduation, Carrie returned to Charles City to work as a law clerk and, in nearby Mason City, as a school teacher and principal. In 1883, at the age of 24, she was appointed Mason City school superintendent, one of the first women in the U.S. to hold such a position.
In February 1885, Carrie married Leo Chapman, publisher and editor of the Mason City Republican newspaper, at her parents’ Charles City farm. Chapman died of typhoid fever the following year in San Francisco, where he had gone to seek new employment. Arriving just a few days after her husband’s death, the young widow decided to remain in San Francisco, where she where she canvassed for ads and wrote freelance articles.
In 1887, Carrie returned to Iowa to begin her crusade for women’s suffrage. She joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, organized suffrage events throughout the state, and worked as a professional lecturer and writer. In June 1890, she married wealthy engineer George W. Catt, whom she had first met in college at Iowa State and later during her time in San Francisco. He supported his wife’s suffrage work both financially and personally, believing that his role in the marriage was to earn their living and hers was to reform society.
Carrie became active in the newly-formed National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), was a delegate to its national convention in 1890, became head of field organizing in 1895, and was elected to succeed Susan B. Anthony as president in 1900. From 1902 to 1904, Carrie was a leader in the formation of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), serving as its president from 1904 to 1923 and thereafter as honorary chair until her death.
Catt resigned as president of NAWSA in 1904 to care for her ailing husband. His death in October 1905—followed by the deaths of Susan B. Anthony (February 1906), her younger brother William (September 1907) and her mother (December 1907)—left Catt grief-stricken. Her doctor and friends encouraged her to travel abroad. A world tour promoting woman suffrage and international peace took Carrie to Norway, Sweden, South Africa (where she met with Gandhi), Egypt, Ceylon, India, Hong Kong, the Philippines and China.
International Woman Suffrage Alliance pin (left) belonged to Carrie Chapman Catt. Carrie served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900-1904 and again from 1915-1920.
This national suffrage newspaper (above) seemed sure of a suffrage victory for Iowa women in 1916. To help spread the referendum campaign message, The Woman’s Journal sent two months of free issues to 60 dailies and 850 weeklies across the state of Iowa.
In 1915, Catt returned to the United States to resume the leadership of NAWSA, which had become badly divided over suffrage strategies. In 1916, Catt proposed her “Winning Plan” to campaign simultaneously for suffrage at both the state and federal levels. Key to the final campaign for the vote was a bequest Catt received in 1914 of more than $1 million by New York City magazine editor and publisher Miriam Folline Leslie “for the cause of woman suffrage.”
1916 – Song Book. Helen Cowles LeCron lyrics from stanza one (to the tune of When Johnny Comes Marching Home): “When Suffrage takes the Hawkeye State, Hurrah! Hurrah! The world will call us wise and great, Hurrah! Hurrah!” The cover of the songbook features a pro-women’s-suffrage political cartoon from Ding Darling, long-time political cartoonist for The Des Moines Register.
Pictured in 1917, Carrie C. Catt and Anna Howard Shaw, co-leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Shaw was also a physician and one of the first ordained female Methodist ministers in the United States
Under Carrie’s leadership, several key states—including New York in 1917—approved women’s suffrage. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson converted to the cause of suffrage and supported a national constitutional amendment.
In 1920, Carrie founded the League of Women Voters, tirelessly lobbying, first in Congress and then in state legislatures, and with the help of many others, the work finally produced a ratified 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.
1921 – Becomes the first woman to deliver a commencement address at Iowa State.
1923 – Co-authors “Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.” Retires as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and made honorary chair.
1925 – Forms the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and serves as its chair.
1926 – Featured on the cover of Time magazine.
1930 – Delivers commencement address at Iowa State. Receives Pictorial Review Award for her international disarmament work.
1932 – Resigns as chair of the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and becomes honorary chair.
1941 – Receives the Chi Omega Award at the White House from longtime friend Eleanor Roosevelt.
1947 – Dies at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., on March 9.
1975 – Becomes one of the first inductees into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.
1982 – Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
1992 – Named one of the 10 most important women of the century by the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation and presented with its Iowa Award for service of nationwide importance. Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics established at Iowa State University.
1992 – The coveted Iowa Award is given to Carrie C. Catt – Iowa’s highest honor.
1995 – Dedication of newly renovated Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, formerly Old Botany, at Iowa State University.
2013 – One of the first four women to be honored on the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa.
Amen, Carrie. Amen.
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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home, The National Nineteenth Amendment Society
Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947), Iowa State University
Carrie Chapman Catt, Wikipedia
Women’s Suffrage in Iowa – An OnLine Exhibit, University of Iowa Library
Carrie Chapman Catt, Find-A-Grave
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