Carrie Chapman Catt

By Debra Michals, PhD | 2015

A skilled political strategist, Carrie Clinton Lane Chapman Catt was a suffragist and peace activist who helped secure for American women the right to vote. She directed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and founded the League of Women Voters (1920) to bring women into the political mainstream.

Born January 9, 1859 in Ripon, Wisconsin, Catt was the second of three children of Maria Clinton and Lucius Lane, farmers in Potsdam, New York. When she was seven, her family relocated to Iowa, where she later became the only woman in her graduating class at Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). She advanced from teacher to superintendent of schools, working in Mason City, Iowa. In 1885, she married newspaper editor Leo Chapman who died a year later of typhoid fever. In 1890, she married successful engineer George Catt.

Catt became involved with the suffrage movement in the late 1880s joining the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, though her interest dated back to her teen years when she realized her mother lacked the same voting rights her father had. She also became involved with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and, an outstanding speaker, she was soon tapped to give speeches nationwide and help organize local suffrage chapters. In 1900, she was elected NAWSA president, filling the seat vacated by the aging Susan B. Anthony.

Recognizing the international dimensions of the suffrage issue, in 1902, Catt founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance to spread democracy around the globe. In 1904, she retired briefly to care for her dying husband, who passed away a year later making Catt a wealthy widow. But that loss, combined with those of her brother, mother and activist Susan B. Anthony, left her emotionally drained. To heal, she spent several years traveling abroad and serving as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. She also helped found the Woman’s Peace Party in 1915.

Catt resumed the NAWSA presidency from 1915 to 1920, during which time the suffrage amendment (the 19th) became part of the US Constitution. She devised the “Winning Plan,” which carefully coordinated state suffrage campaigns with the drive for a constitutional amendment—the plan which helped ensure final victory. Meanwhile, however, Catt faced strategic challenges from younger recruits such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who favored militant tactics and focused exclusively on a US constitutional amendment. Catt also differed with Paul and Burns over picketing the White House during World War I; Catt threw her support toward Wilson’s war effort and continued her state-by-state suffrage campaigns. She consolidated New York City suffrage groups into the Woman Suffrage Party, greatly contributing to the New York state suffrage victory in 1917 after previous failed attempts.

With the vote won, Catt founded the League of Women Voters to educate women on political issues and served as the organization’s honorary president until her death in 1947. She published a history of suffrage in 1923, Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement. She also gave her attention to other issues such as child labor and world peace. After the horrors of World War I, she organized the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (1925). Concerned about Hitler’s growing power, she worked on behalf of German Jewish refugees and was awarded the American Hebrew Medal (1933).


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