CHARLES CITY, Iowa (WOMENSENEWS)–At the 147th anniversary of her birth on Jan. 9 Carrie Chapman Catt is an obscure figure. That is hardly deserved.
The way to history’s heart has rarely been an equal-rights route, but still, Catt, who built the National American Woman Suffrage Association and completed the struggle for the vote, has been diminished worse than other major suffragists.
Susan B. Anthony, in addition to her short-lived silver dollar and two U.S. postage stamps, is the central figure in “The Mother of Us All,” an opera by Virgil Thomson. Sojourner Truth got a stamp, as did others.
Catt’s U.S. stamp is almost a cruel joke. Over the rubric “Progress of Women,” she is squeezed between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott on a commemorative issued in 1948, the centennial of the women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, N.Y. That was 10 years before Catt’s birth.
Her work was long and broad. In addition to building the American suffrage association–which in 1915 had 2 million members and opened a big Washington headquarters the next year–she led an international suffrage group and founded the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War. Her abiding creation is the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, begun in 1919, which has headquarters in Washington and counts 150,000 members and supporters.
One problem is her attention-deflecting style. She disliked personal publicity and burned many of her letters. She did not don flowing white and ride a horse, as Inez Milholland Boissevain did so spectacularly in the 1913 suffrage parade. Nor did she go to prison and suffer force-feeding, as did Alice Paul and others in the National Women’s Party in 1917.
In her usual elaborate hat, the solidly built Catt looks more like a clubwoman than a fighting revolutionary.
A Cinematic Blow
Finally, a cinematic blow: the casting of the magnificent Anjelica Huston as an unlikable Catt in the 2004 HBO suffrage docudrama, “Iron Jawed Angels.”
In depicting the fierce strategy clashes between Catt and Alice Paul, Huston maintains a thin-lipped, imperious disapproval of the more romantic-seeming upstarts: Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and her friend Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) and other Thoroughly Modern Millies.
When the 19th Amendment finally became law in August 1920, Paul was 35 and Burns 41. Catt, twice widowed, was 61 and had been in the fight since she was 30.
Catt spent half of July and most of August 1920 in sweltering Tennessee, where she had been summoned as the crucial 36th state moved toward ratification. She stumped the state, then went to Nashville, where local suffragists converged for the hair-breadth legislative vote.
It was a harsh experience. “I have been flooded with anonymous letters, vulgar, ignorant, insane…,” Catt wrote in the publication Woman Citizen. “Even tricksters from the United States Revenue Service were there, operating against us… They appropriated our telegrams, tapped our telephones, listened outside our windows and transoms. They attacked our private and public lives.”
“Iron Jawed Angels” does not even show Catt in Nashville. At victory, the camera celebrates Paul and Burns, with the implication that they vanquished not only the political opposition but the stodgy Catt.
Efforts to Bolster Public Esteem
Fortunately for historical clarity, efforts have begun to bolster public esteem for Catt.
One project is her 1866 childhood home here on the outskirts of Charles City, in northeast Iowa. The privately owned brick farmhouse was saved from collapse by an ad hoc nonprofit, the 19th Amendment Society, which bought the house in 1991 and in 1995 got it onto the National Register of Historic Places. Last August, after restoration, it was dedicated as a museum and research center.
In big graphic panels designed by students at Northern Iowa University about her life and times, visitors can see a spirited leader emerging.
A formative event for Catt occurred in 1872, when she was 13. Her father and a hired man left the kitchen to prepare to go vote for Horace Greeley for president. She asked why her mother was not also dressing for the trip to town. She was laughed at; women voting? After that she grew steadfast in challenging disrespect for girls.
When Catt left home in 1877, going a hundred miles southwest to the Iowa State Agricultural School in Ames, she found it offered men military training. Hearing this praised as a benefit to health, Carrie, one of six women in a class of 27, started the G (for girls) Company, which drilled with broomsticks.
She also seized the public speaking opportunities in the Crescent Literary Society, until then restricted to men, learning parliamentary procedure and rhetoric. A quote from her most famous speech, “The Crisis,” gives a sample of the skills she acquired.
“Shall we play the coward, then,” she asked her 1916 audience, “and leave the hard knocks for our daughters, or shall we throw ourselves into the fray, bare our own shoulders to the blows, and thus bequeath to them a politically liberated womanhood?”
After three years she graduated as valedictorian and took up teaching and journalism.
Starts Married Life as Journalist
Catt’s first marriage, to an editor, Leo Chapman, took place at the farmhouse in 1885. In her wedding portrait, she looks demure, but Chapman’s newspaper, the Mason City Republican, published a notice that husband and wife were henceforth to be equal co-editors. Chapman died of typhoid a year and a half later and the widow sustained herself as a journalist and lecturer.
After marriage in 1890 to George Catt, an engineer, and with his strong support, she embraced the suffrage drive. Work took him to New York City and the Catts settled there, where she remained after his death in 1905.
Catt’s alma mater, now Iowa State University, in 1992 established the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. The center awards annual prizes for research on women and politics and brings to the campus outstanding women–former Senators Patricia Schroeder and Carol Moseley Braun to name two–to act as “leaders, mentors and role models.” In 1995 the school rehabilitated one of its buildings and dedicated it as Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, which houses the Catt center as well as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Catt lived to be 88. Those interested in visiting her grave can find it in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, N.Y., where she chose to be buried beside Mary Garrett Hay, her best friend from 1895 on, with whom she shared a house in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Hay was president of the New York City Woman Suffrage party in 1915 and is credited with persuading the city political machine, Tammany Hall, to keep its hands off in 1917, when suffrage carried in a state vote. Catt viewed this as a major turning point.
“Here lie two, united in friendship for 38 years through constant service to a great cause,” the headstone says.
Betsy Wade was a reporter and editor for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She wrote the Times’s Practical Traveler column for 17 years.
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For more information:
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home Restoration Project
The National 19th Amendment Society:
Catt Center for Women and Politics:
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