(January 9, 1859 – March 9, 1947)
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt is recognized as one of the key leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement.
Catt was born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, WI, as the second of three children of Lucius and Maria (Clinton) Lane. In 1866, the family moved to a farm near Charles City, IA. Catt entered Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames, IA, in 1877 and completed a bachelor's degree in general science in 1880 as the only woman in her graduating class. While in college, Catt established military drills for women and became the first female student to give an oration before a debating society. She worked her way through school by washing dishes, teaching, and serving as a librarian’s assistant. She also was a member of Pi Beta Phi fraternity.
After graduation, Catt returned to Charles City to work as a law clerk and, in nearby Mason City, as a schoolteacher and principal. In 1883, at the age of 24, she was appointed Mason City school superintendent, one of the first women to hold such a position. In February 1885, she married Leo Chapman, publisher and editor of the Mason City Republican newspaper. Chapman died of typhoid fever the following year in San Francisco, CA, where he had gone to seek new employment. Arriving just a few days after her husband’s death, the young widow decided to remain in San Francisco, where she wrote freelance articles.
In 1887, Catt returned to Iowa to begin her 33-year crusade for women’s suffrage. She joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, organized suffrage events throughout the state, and worked as a professional lecturer and writer. In June 1890, she married wealthy engineer George W. Catt, whom she had first met in college in Iowa and later during her time in San Francisco. He supported his wife’s suffrage work both financially and personally, believing that his role in the marriage was to earn their living and hers was to reform society. They had no children.
During this time, Catt also became active in the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She was a delegate to its national convention in 1890, became head of field organizing in 1895, and was elected to succeed Susan B. Anthony as president in 1900. She continued to give speeches, plan campaigns, organize women, and gain political expertise. She devoted thirty-three years of her life to the movement, serving twice as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Catt’s superb oratory and organizational skills helped lead to ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote in August 1920.
From 1902 to 1904, Catt was a leader in the formation of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), serving as its president from 1904 to 1923 and thereafter as honorary chair until her death. Catt resigned as president of NAWSA in 1904 to care for her ailing husband, who died in October 1905. She spent most of the following nine years promoting equal suffrage rights worldwide as IWSA president.
In 1915, Catt returned to the United States to resume the leadership of NAWSA, which had become divided over suffrage strategies. In 1916, Catt proposed her “Winning Plan” to campaign simultaneously for suffrage at both the state and federal levels. Key to the final campaign for the vote was a bequest Catt received in 1914 of more than $1 million by New York City magazine editor and publisher Miriam Folline Leslie “for the cause of woman suffrage.”
Under Catt’s leadership, several key states—including New York in 1917—approved women’s suffrage. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson converted to the cause of suffrage and supported a national constitutional amendment. Tireless lobbying by Catt and other suffragists finally produced a ratified Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.
In 1919, Catt proposed the creation of a nonpartisan educational organization for women voters and on February 14, 1920—six months before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified—the national League of Women Voters (LWV) was organized in Chicago, IL. She was honorary president of the LWV for the rest of her life. In 1923, Catt published Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement with co-author Nettie R. Schuler.
In addition to her suffrage work, Catt was active in several other causes, including international peace. In January 1915, after the outbreak of World War I, she joined with Jane Addams to organize the Women’s Peace Party. In 1925, Catt founded the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and served as chair of the organization until 1932 and thereafter as honorary chair. She supported the League of Nations after World War I and the United Nations after World War II. Between the wars, she worked for Jewish refugee relief efforts and child labor protection laws.
On March 9, 1947, Catt died of heart failure at her home in New Rochelle, NY, where she had moved after her second husband’s death. She donated her estate to her alma mater, where, in 1921, she was the first woman to deliver a commencement address at Iowa State University. She also delivered the commencement address at Iowa State in 1930.
Catt attained recognition for her work both during and after her lifetime. In 1926, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine and, in 1930, she received the Pictorial Review Award for her international disarmament work. In 1941, Catt received the Chi Omega award at the White House from her longtime friend Eleanor Roosevelt. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1975 and into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1992, Catt was named one of the ten most important women of the century by the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation. The Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics was founded in her honor in 1992 at Iowa State University and a building on central campus, formerly Botany Hall, was renovated and renamed Carrie Chapman Catt Hall in 1995. In 2013, Catt was one of the first four women selected to be honored on the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge in Des Moines, IA.
Carrie Chapman Catt Papers, RS 21/7/3, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.
Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. 2017. “Carrie Chapman Catt (1959-1947).” https://cattcenter.iastate.edu/home/about-us/carrie-chapman-catt/
Fowler, Robert Booth. 1986. Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
Van Voris, Jacqueline. 1987. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. New York: The Feminist Press, City University of New York.