Carrie Chapman Catt was the suffragist leader who, after years of strategizing and campaigning, got to lead her army of women into the promised land.
Catt was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, long led by Susan B. Anthony, when the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was ratified on August 18, 1920. “The final triumph [of suffrage] was in large part a tribute to Catt’s imaginative and tactful leadership,” her Encyclopedia Britannica entry notes.
Catt developed a strategy she called her “Winning Plan,” introduced at a NAWSA convention in 1916, that relied on passing suffrage, or partial suffrage, in the states and then using this to pressure legislators to pass a national amendment. Catt, a wealthy and cultured widow, was also instrumental in winning the support of one recalcitrant but very important ally, President Woodrow Wilson (who was ill-at-ease with more overtly radical suffrage leaders), over to the cause of women’s suffrage.
Though Wilson came late to the cause, his 1918 speech before Congress, his first public avowal of suffrage, was a milestone. “We have made partners of the women in this war,” Wilson said. “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
“Someday the history of these last few months will be written and if the writer catches the real spirit it will be a thrilling story,” Catt said in a speech delivered February of 1920, when ratification was clearly imminent.
“Suffragists were never dismayed when they were a tiny group and all the world was against them,” she said. “What care they now when all the world is with them. March on, suffragists—the victory is yours.”
She would later say that the realization that her mother could not vote, while her father could, was a turning point.
Carrie Clinton Lane was born into a farming family in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1859 but the family moved to Iowa when she was a child. Her girlhood home in Charles, Iowa, now a museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a charming brick Victorian with a porch and adjacent apple orchard. She would later say that the realization that her mother could not vote, while her father could, was a turning point. Catt’s father, Lucius Lane, was initially skeptical about her going to college, but he eventually accepted it, though he would not defray the entire cost. Carrie enrolled in Iowa State Agricultural College (which evolved into Iowa State University), where she washed dishes and taught school to earn money to help support herself. She was the only woman in her class and graduated with a BS degree. She was a law clerk and teacher, rising to be the first female school superintendent in her district.
In 1885 she married newspaper man Leo Chapman. She accompanied him to California and adopted his line of work. Chapman died a year later of typhoid fever. Carrie stayed on for a while, becoming the first female reporter in San Francisco. Returning to Iowa, she helped organize the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association.
Four years after Chapman’s death, she married prominent engineer and Iowa native George Catt. Their prenup marriage contract featured an unusual clause. Carrie got four months off a year to do her own thing, which of course was working for woman suffrage. George Catt encouraged her in her suffragist work, and, when he died in 1905, left her a wealthy woman able to devote herself fulltime to the cause without financial worries.
Catt became close to Susan B. Anthony, who handpicked Catt to lead NAWSA. Catt served two terms as president of NAWSA, from 1900 to 1904, when she took time off to nurse a dying husband, and from 1915 to 1920. As part of the “Winning Plan,” Catt organized women’s groups in New York to lobby for the 1917 referendum that gave New York women the right to vote. It was after the referendum passed that Catt could declare suffrage “inevitable.”
Catt tended to steer clear of the firebrands. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the original firebrand of the movement, published her radical Women’s Bible in the 1890s, Catt lobbied for a NAWSA resolution disassociating itself from Stanton’s highly unorthodox book. The resolution passed, over the objections of Susan B. Anthony, who regarded it as unnecessary. Anthony previously had joined Catt in asking Stanton to make changes, a thankless task. Stanton begged Anthony to resign from NAWSA in protest, but in the end neither Stanton nor Anthony left the organization.
Their prenup marriage contract featured an unusual clause. Carrie got four months off a year to do her own thing, which of course was working for woman suffrage.
Alice Paul was another of those firebrands, and Paul and Catt were often at daggers drawn. Alice Paul had lived in England and was impressed by the militant tactics of the colorful English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Paul and her friend Lucy Burns—the two Americans first encountered each in a London police station after being arrested at a suffragette demonstration—organized the 1913 women’s march that greeted President Wilson when he arrived in Washington, D.C., for his inauguration.
Paul organized the Silent Sentinels to stand in front of the White House. “At first, Wilson seemed bemused by the picketers. He tipped his hat and smiled. He even invited them in for coffee.” But as time went on, the tide turned. According to PBS, “Wilson was repelled by the militant suffragists outside his gate. To him, their methods were insulting, unfeminine, and unpatriotic.” (Wilson was, however, horrified at the tactics, including force feeding, endured when Sentinels were taken to jail.)
Catt rejected Paul’s militant tactics. Catt was active in the international peace movement. Nevertheless, Catt threw her support behind the war, a hotly contested decision. But she did not waver. As PBS put it, Catt “embraced the war as an opportunity for women to earn the vote through their patriotism.” She also met with Wilson privately.
Her strategy worked. In June 1918, Wilson sent a typewritten note from the White House to Catt. “I have read your letter with deepest interest,” Wilson wrote, “and I welcome the opportunity to say without reservation that the full and sincere democratic reconstruction of the world for which we are striving, and which we are determined to bring about at any cost, will not be completely or adequately attained until women are admitted to the suffrage, and that only by that action can the nations of the world realize for the benefit of future generations the full ideal force of opinion, or the full humane forces of action.” Wilson appears to have typed the letter himself.
Catt tended to steer clear of the firebrands.
Catt and Paul never reconciled. Paul established the National Woman’s Party. As an older lady, still active but living at Juniper Lodge, her home in New York, Catt placed 14 plaques honoring leaders of the suffrage movement in trees on the property. One famous activist, Alice Paul, was conspicuously absent.
Catt traveled to Nashville in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was up for a vote in the state legislature. Catt organized the campaign for ratification in Tennessee. The vote was deadlocked, when a young state legislator named Harry T. Burn changed his vote at the behest of his mother. Thus Tennessee became the 36th and final state to vote for ratification. Catt went on to found the League of Women Voters.
After she became a widow, Catt lived the rest of her life with Mary Garrett Hay, a suffragist from New York. When Catt died in 1947, at the age of 88, she was buried next to Hay in New York’s historic Woodlawn Cemetery. She was the strategist who steered the 19th Amendment into port, bringing to fruition the crusade for woman suffrage in the United States.