Strategist, Suffragist, and Peace Activist
"This world taught woman nothing skillful and then said her work was valueless. It permitted her no opinions and said she did not know how to think. It forbade her to speak in public, and said the sex had no orators. It denied her the schools, and said the sex had no genius. It robbed her of every vestige of responsibility and then called her weak.”
Carrie Chapman Catt was born Carrie Lane, on January 9, 1859 in Ripon, Wisconsin, She was the second of three children of Maria Clinton and Lucius Lane, farmers in Potsdam, New York. As a young child Carrie was always interested in science and had her sights set on becoming a doctor. When she was seven, her family relocated to Iowa. After graduating high school she enrolled in Iowa State Agricultural College, now Iowa State University. Her father was reluctant to allow her to attend college but eventually he relented but still only contributed a small amount to the costs. Carrie worked as a dishwasher, in the school library and taught school in rural areas during school breaks. Her college class consisted of 27 students, six of whom were female but she became the only woman in her graduating class. She joined the Crescent Literary Society which was a student organization whose goal was the advancement of student learning skills and self-confidence. Only men were allowed to speak at meetings but Carrie defied the rules and spoke up during a male debate. This sparked a discussion about women’s participation in the group and ultimately led to women gaining the right to speak at meetings. She worked as a law clerk after graduating, then as a teacher, a principal, and eventually as superintendent of schools, in Mason City, Iowa. She was the first female superintendent in this district.
In 1885, she married newspaper editor Leo Chapman who died a year later of typhoid fever. She stayed in San Francisco after his death and worked as the city’s first female reporter.In 1890, she married successful engineer George Catt who was himself a graduate of Iowa State University. The following year she joined the Women’s Suffrage Movement. He supported her in every way and encouraged her growing involvement in suffrage. She spent a good part of each year on the road campaigning for women’s right to vote.
Catt began working nationally for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and was even a speaker at its 1890 convention in Washington D.C. In 1892, Susan B. Anthony asked Catt to address Congress on the proposed woman's suffrage amendment. She would go on to become president of NAWSA, and hold that office for two terms.
Catt continued her work for women's suffrage even after she retired from her presidency post at NAWSA due to the health problems of her second husband. She founded the League of Women Voters in 1920 serving as honorary president for the rest of her life. She ran for president that year in the Georgist Commonwealth Land Party and in 1923 with Nettie Rogers Shuler, published Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement. She created the “Winning Plan,” a campaign to encourage each state to give women the right to vote and to urge Congress to pass an amendment to this effect. Membership in NAWSA grew to over two million by 1917.
During the 1920’ and 1920’s she was very active in anti-war causes. At the beginning of World War I, she and Jane Adams spearheaded an organization that promoted peace. At this time women began to assist the government by taking over certain jobs while the men were away and also aided in Red Cross work.
Eventually her focus again turned to women’s right to vote. After the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, granting women the vote, her attention again turned to the peace movement. She established the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (NCCCW). They divided the cause of war into four distinct categories: physiological, economic, political and social. The organization believed that it was their job as women to end wars because women were seen as morally courageous, in contrast to their male counterparts who were viewed as physically courageous.
During World War II, Cat resigned from NCCCW, feeling disillusioned that the organization had not turned out as she had intended, not including all women, but only middle class white women.
In 1933, as Hitler rose to power, she organized the Protest Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany.The group sent a letter of protest to Hitler in August 1933 signed by 9,000 non-Jewish American women. It decried acts of violence and restrictive laws against German Jews. Catt pressured the U.S. government to ease immigration laws so that Jews could more easily take refuge in America. For her efforts, she became the first woman to receive the American Hebrew Medal.
Catt attained recognition for her work both during and after her lifetime. In 1926, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine and, in 1930, she received the Pictorial Review Award for her international disarmament work. In 1941, Catt received the Chi Omega award at the White House from her longtime friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1975, Catt became the first inductee into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame. A stamp was issued in 1948 in remembrance of the Seneca Falls Convention, featuring Catt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. In 1982, Catt was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 1992, the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation named her one of the ten most important women of the century. The same year, Iowa State University established the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics and in 1992, and the Old Botany building on central campus was renovated and renamed Carrie Chapman Catt Hall in 1995. Catt was played by Anjelica Huston in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels (highly recommend this film!). In 2013, she was one of the first four women to be honored on the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge in Des Moines.