Internationally recognized for her many accomplishments, Carrie Chapman Catt was a remarkable political leader famed for her organizational skills, pragmatism, and unwavering commitment to the causes of world peace, suffrage, and women’s rights.
Born in Ripon, Wisconsin on January 9, 1859 to Lucius and Maria Lane, Carrie was a precocious child, intent on defying the strict gender constraints of nineteenth century America. She graduated from Iowa Agricultural College, now Iowa State University, in 1877 and then worked as a schoolteacher for the Mason City school district where she was promoted to superintendent by the age of 24. In 1885, she married Leo Chapman, editor of the Mason City Republican, and wrote a column for his newspaper called “Woman’s World.” After Leo Chapman’s death in 1887, she became involved in Iowa suffrage and gave lectures to support herself. She married former classmate and wealthy engineer, George Catt, in 1890 and became a full-time activist for the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association.
Catt’s experience as the head of field organization for the IWSA and a major adviser for the successful 1893 Colorado suffrage campaign attracted the attention of Susan B. Anthony, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who appointed Catt head of field organizing in 1895. Through this role, she honed her skill for invigorating stagnant suffrage campaigns nationwide.
In 1900, Anthony handpicked Catt to be the next president of NAWSA on her merits as an organizer. After five years, a short period of ill health forced Catt to resign as head of NAWSA. Soon she redoubled her efforts, as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. She also helped lead the 1915 New York suffrage campaign and co-founded the Women’s Peace Party after the outbreak of World War I.
Carrie Chapman Catt again assumed the presidency of NAWSA in 1915. The next year, she crafted her “Winning Plan” to fight for suffrage on both the state and federal level, relentlessly pursuing a constitutional amendment. Under her leadership and through the tireless activism of millions of women, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finalized on August 26, 1920. Catt advised that NAWSA reform immediately as the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization charged with advocating and maintaining voting rights for American women. She served as honorary president of the LWV for the rest of her life.
After her suffrage victory, Catt continued to work for international suffrage and world peace until her death on March 9, 1947. She was honored both during and after her 60-year career. Catt graced the cover of Time magazine in 1926 and received the Chi Omega award from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941. In 1948, she and two other suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, were honored with a postage stamp commemorating one hundred years of progress for American women. Catt was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1975 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982. Her alma mater, Iowa State University, named the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics and Catt Hall in her honor in 1992 and 1995, respectively.
Written by Crystal Brandenburgh, Iowa State University
Van Voris, Jacqueline. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. New York City: The Feminist Press, 1987.
Fowler, Robert Booth. Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986.
Noun, Louise R. Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1969.
Tim Lane was born 10 months after the death of his famous great-great aunt, Carrie Lane Chapman Catt. Yet she profoundly affected his life, and he even named his daughter Carrie. “In 1872 at the age of 13, she found out her mom wasn’t going out to vote in the presidential election like her father and his hired help,” Lane said. “It was a moment like Babe Ruth pointing out to centerfield. She called her shot and from then on spent 50 percent of her time fighting for suffrage.” Lane, who obtained a degree in history and serves as co-chair of the Iowa World War I Centennial Committee, believes that no event impacted more Americans’ civil rights more than the 19th Amendment.
In 1938 at age 5, Ivadelle Stevenson donned a dress and stockings sent to her from her great-great aunt Carrie and stood beside a plaque placed by the Charles City Federated Women’s Club. The fall occasion dedicated the Girlhood Home of Carrie Chapman Catt. “I was never able to meet her, but she used to send me books from her personal library,” Stevenson recalls. “My grandfather — Carrie’s nephew — and father were both very proud and talked about her a lot.”
Lane and Stevenson happily share family stories, such as a young Carrie defending girls teased by boys with garter snakes. “At age 6, she once smacked a boy at recess who had made fun of a friend over a fallen hoop skirt,” Lane noted. Importantly, both agree that more should be done to educate future generations about Carrie Chapman Catt and her fight for equality.