Suffragist and founder of the League of Women Voters
Carrie Chapman Catt dedicated her life to campaigning for woman suffrage both in the United States and abroad. She also worked tirelessly for world peace, encourage the United States to first become part of the League of Nations and later to be part of the United Nations.
Born Carrie Clinton Lane in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1859, Catt grew up in Iowa and after high school, she wanted to continue her education so she taught school for a year to save money for college. She worked throughout her time at Iowa State Agricultural College, graduating in 1880—the only woman in the graduating class of 18.
Her first marriage in 1885 was to Leo Chapman, a newspaper editor, and for his paper, she wrote a column, “Woman’s World,” but it was about women’s political and labor issues; she often wrote of the importance of women having the vote. Leo Chapman was forced to sell his newspaper after he took a strong stand against a local candidate, so he went to San Francisco to find work, but he died of typhoid fever shortly after arriving there. Carrie, 27, had been on her way to be with him, and she stayed in San Francisco looking for work as a journalist.
In 1890 she married a fellow with whom she had attended college. George Catt was a civil engineer with a specialty in bridge building. He was very supportive of Carrie’s work. She often said, “My husband used to say that he was as much of a reformer as I, but that he couldn’t work at reforming and earn a living at the same time; what he could do was to earn living enough for two and free me from all economic burden, and thus I could reform for two.”
Catt worked tirelessly for voting rights, soon succeeding Susan B. Anthony, who was 80, as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1900-1904. She expanded her efforts to campaign for suffrage internationally, but took the NAWSA presidency again in 1915 and engineered the final strategy that led to successful passage to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919.
While the country is a better place because both genders have the right to vote, Catt’s other lasting legacy is the League of Women Voters. In March of 1919 at the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s meeting in St. Louis it was clear that they were getting very close passage of the amendment, and the women were working state by state to achieve ratification by the needed 36 states. In the midst of this final push, Catt realized that NAWSA would at some point no longer be needed, and she founded the League of Women Voters to carry out what she saw as the next steps.
Initially the League was described as a “mighty political experiment” to help 20 million new voters carry out their responsibilities, but from the beginning, the League also encouraged women to become active in shaping public policy.
The LWV began with tables in department stores and hotel lobbies to show women what was expected of them when they went to vote, and the organization has grown to operate with offices on the city, state, and national level, with the intent today to provide nonpartisan information to voters of both genders.
The first League president, Maud Wood Park, referred to the first League platform of 1920 as a “kettle of eels.” The League had selected 69 items they felt should receive attention, ranging from child welfare, education, and public health to classes on the responsibilities of citizenship. The League’s first major national legislative success was the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act providing federal aid for maternal and child care programs.
A significant contribution the League made to elections involved a willingness to shoulder the responsibility of sponsoring the early presidential debates—an event that has become an important part of the presidential election process. The first general debate was in 1960 and then the League revived the idea again, sponsoring the debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984. In 1987 the League backed out because the candidates had begun trying to influence all the details of the debates. The League pulled their sponsorship because they felt that what was happening was tantamount to “hoodwinking the American public.” (Since that time the debates have been sponsored by a Commission on Presidential Debates, organized by the two major political parties.)
Today the League is still a vital part of our election and education process. In most communities, one of the important services provided by the League is “meet the candidates” programming and usually leaflets mailed to all homes in a district explaining without political bias the details of various bills or issues that are to be voted on at an upcoming election.
There is no doubt that Carrie Chapman Catt left a lasting legacy.