Driving down a two-lane paved road in rural Iowa from one small town to the next you might be forgiven for overlooking a sign saying “Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home” but turn on to the gravel road and you will find yourself at the childhood home of the woman who convinced Woodrow Wilson to pass the 19th amendment in America guaranteeing women the right to vote, almost 100 years ago!
Born in Wisconsin in 1859, her family moved to the above home in 1866. When she decided she wanted to attend university, her father wouldn’t pay for it. So instead of giving up on her dream, she worked her way through university getting a bachelor’s degree in general science by washing dishes, working at the school library and teaching; very much like today’s students. However, she was the only woman to graduate in her class! During her time at the university she “established military drills for women and became the first female student to give an oration before a debating society” according to the Catt Centre ISU website.
She then took on a series of different types of employment from a law clerk to a school teacher, as well as a school principal – the first woman to hold the position in the United States! After her first marriage, she then wrote freelance articles, canvassed for ads and worked as a professional lecturer and writer. She was the first woman reporter in San Francisco.
She married her first husband Leo Chapman in 1885, a publisher and editor of a large newspaper in the area, who passed away the following year. This was followed by a slightly longer marriage to George Catt, a wealthy engineer from 1890-1905.
Chapman Catt’s work on suffrage began in 1887 when she joined the Iowa
Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA). Her second husband’s role was influential to this as he assisted both morally and financially. In just 10 short years she had joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), became a national delegate, then head of field organizing and finally it’s national president, following Susan B. Anthony. She was also the founder and president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA).
Chapman Catt came up with “the Winning Plan” in 1916. This included fighting for the women’s vote on both the state and federal fronts. Starting in 1917, women starting winning the right to move in states such as New York. She clashed with the more militant suffragists such as Alice Burns. A reporter described her speeches as being “factual, conciliatory and delivered as not to offend.” She used strategy and compromise to gain support and advance her cause. This paid off, with Woodrow Wilson putting his support behind the amendment. This lend to the passage of the 19th Amendment in US in 1920. She also created the National League of Women Voters in which she was the President/Honorary President for the rest of her life. This group is still active today and works in getting women elected into office.
In 1915, after the start of WWI, she helped organize the Women’s Peace Party. After WWI, she organized the National Conference on the Cause and Cure of War. She also lobbied for Jewish Refuge Relief after the rise of Hitler and won the American Hebrew Medal in 1933. She worked on child labor laws and world peace. To this end, she assisted in the founding of the League of Nations and the United Nations. She was featured on the cover of Times Magazine in 1926. In 1930, she also received the Pictorial Review Award for her work on international disarmament.
Carrie’s work for the suffragist movement spanned several decades on her life, from the time when she in her teens and she realized her mom didn’t have the same voting rights as her dad. She had that Iowa “can-do” resilient spirit that Iowans are well known for. It’s that attitude that took her from rural Wisconsin/Iowa to the international stage. However, none of this information is talked about in school. Her name in rarely mentioned, nowadays. Not only do women owe a lot to this astounding woman as a suffragette, but the world owes her a debt a gratitude for helping in the founding of the United Nations.
Here is a quote from Chapman Catt that needs to be heard today more than ever- “Everybody counts in applying democracy. And there will never be a true democracy until every responsible and law-abiding adult in it, without regard to race, sex, color or creed has his or her own inalienable and unpurchasable voice in government.” Carrie Chapman Catt (1917). Votes for All: A Symposium. The Crisis 15(1).
Written by Deidre Easton (she/her), who splits her time between Iowa and the UK. Follow her on Instagram or Facebook! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.