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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Catt, Carrie Chapman
(January 9, 1859–March 9, 1947)

–woman suffrage leader, world peace advocate, and founder of the League of Women Vot ers—was born in Ripon, Wisconsin, the second of three children. Her parents, Lucius and Maria (Clinton) Lane, were natives of New York State who moved west to Wisconsin in 1855 so that Lucius could pursue farming. In 1866 seven-year-old Carrie Lane and her family moved west again, this time to rural Charles City, Iowa, where she graduated from high school in 1877. Despite her father's wishes to the contrary, she enrolled at Iowa Agricultural College in Ames. She graduated in 1880 as the only woman in her class. The common claim that she graduated at the top of her class cannot be confirmed. Because she received no financial support from her father, she worked in the college library, washed dishes, and taught to earn her way through school.

    After college, Carrie Lane returned to Charles City to work as a clerk in a law office and, later, as a schoolteacher and principal in nearby Mason City. In 1883 she was appointed superintendent of schools there. During that time, she wrote a column about women's issues for the Mason City Republican, where her first public statements on universal voting rights were published. She married the newspaper's editor and publisher, Leo Chapman, in 1885. Following a raucous dispute the next year with some of the town's political leaders over a local election, the couple decided to move to San Francisco, where Leo had gone to seek employment. Before Carrie arrived in California to join him, however, Leo had contracted typhoid fever and died unexpectedly, leaving the young widow stranded and alone. She remained in San Francisco for about two years, working for a newspaper before returning to Charles City in 1887. There she resumed her public advocacy for woman suffrage. She joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association as a professional writer, lecturer, and recording secretary, ultimately serving as its state organizer from 1890 to 1892.

    In June 1890 Carrie Chapman married George Catt, a fellow Iowa Agricultural College alumnus whom she had met in San Francisco. George Catt's encouragement of her suffrage activity included his commitment to financially support her work for at least four months each year. The arrangement enabled her to travel not only throughout Iowa but elsewhere in the United States as well. She became active with the National Woman Suffrage Association, the pro-federal suffrage amendment organization founded by Susan B. Anthony, and spoke at its Washington, D.C., convention in 1890.

    In the following months, Catt's writing and speaking engagements established her reputation as a leading national suffragist. Anthony asked Catt to address Congress on the proposed federal suffrage amendment and in 1900 invited Catt to succeed her as the association's president. In accepting the appointment, Catt acknowledged that it was a burden as much as an honor and that "the cause has got beyond where one woman cando the whole."Catt devoted her time to speechmaking and planning state campaigns, assisting local and state organizations with state constitutional amendment drives with an eye toward enacting a federal amendment. In 1902 she helped organize the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, which eventually incorporated sympathetic associations in 32 nations.

    Her husband's failing health caused her to resign the presidency of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1904. His death the following year, followed by the deaths of Susan B. Anthony in 1906 and Catt's younger brother and her mother, both in 1907, left Catt grief-stricken. Her doctor and friends encouraged her to travel abroad; as a result, she spent much of the following eight years promoting equal suffrage rights worldwide as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

    By 1915 the National Woman Suffrage Association had merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association, the latter concentrating its political efforts at the state level. The newly constituted National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), however, had become deeply divided under the leadership of Anna Howard Shaw, and Catt once again assumed the association's presidency that year. In 1916, at a NAWSA convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Catt unveiled her "Winning Plan" to campaign simultaneously for suffrage on both the state and federal levels, and to compromise for partial suffrage in the states resisting change. Under Catt's dynamic leadership, NAWSA won the backing of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as state support for the amendment's ratification. A significant victory for prosuffrage forces came in New York, where voters passed a state woman suffrage referendum in 1917. The following year, President Woodrow Wilson was at last converted to the cause. On August 26, 1920, 144 years after U.S. independence, the 19th Amendment officially became part of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing all women in the United States the right to vote.

    Stepping down from the NAWSA presidency after its victory, Catt continued her work for equal suffrage, founding the League of Women Voters in 1920 and serving as its honorary president for the rest of her life. In 1923 she published Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement with Nettie Rogers Shuler. Catt's interests extended to the causes of world peace and child labor. In 1925 she founded the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War, serving as its chair until 1932. She also supported the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations. She was a skilled political tactician who strove to appeal for the support of moderate and conservative voters; nonetheless, her peace activism led to her being monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the 1920s.

    Widely honored and praised for her decades of public service, Catt continued to make occasional public appearances until failing health prevented her from doing so. She died of heart failure at her New Rochelle, New York, home on March 9, 1947, at age 88. She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the north Bronx, New York, alongside her longtime companion, Mary Garret Hay, a fellow New York State suffragist, with whom she lived for more than 20 years.
Sources Catt's correspondence is in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and in Special Collections, Iowa State University Libraries, Ames. Full-length biographies are Robert Booth Fowler, Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician (1986), and Jacqueline Van Voris, Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life (1987). Catt wrote numerous books and monographs, perhaps the most noted being Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement (1923), coauthored with Nettie Rogers Shuler.
Contributor: David Mccartney

Cite as: McCartney, David. "Catt, Carrie Chapman" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 16 July 2018