Carrie Lane Chapman Catt—an Iowa State University alumna who devoted most of her life to the expansion of women’s rights around the world as well as international peace—is recognized as one of the key leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement. Her superb oratory and organizational skills led to ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote in August 1920.
Catt was born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, Wis., the second of three children of Lucius and Maria (Clinton) Lane. In 1866, at the close of the Civil War, the family moved to a farm near Charles City, Iowa.
Catt entered Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa, in 1877 and completed a bachelor’s degree in general science in 1880, the only woman in her graduating class. At the time, the college’s academic year ran from the spring through the fall, so Catt completed her degree in four years, not three years as is sometimes reported. Also, some biographies mistakenly state that Catt was valedictorian of her class. The college did not recognize valedictorians at that time and while Catt was a good student, there is no official information on her rank in the class.* While at Iowa State, 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 school teacher 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, at her parents’ Charles City farm. Chapman died of typhoid fever the following year in San Francisco, Calif., 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 where she canvassed for ads and wrote freelance articles.
In 1887, Catt returned to Iowa to begin her 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 at Iowa State 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. Catt’s organizational, speaking and writing skills established her reputation as a leading suffragist.
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. His death in October 1905—followed by the deaths of Susan B. Anthony (February 1906), her younger brother William (September 1907) and her mother (December 1907)—left Catt grief-stricken. Her doctor and friends encouraged her to travel abroad. 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 badly 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, first in Congress and then in state legislatures, finally produced a ratified 19th 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 19th 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. The LWV remains active today and is frequently a training ground for women who later compete for electoral office. In 1923, Catt published “Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement” with 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, N.Y., where she had moved after her second husband’s death. She donated her entire estate to her alma mater, Iowa State, where, in 1921, she was the first woman to deliver a commencement address at the 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 10 most important women of the century by the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation. At Iowa State, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics was founded in her honor in 1992 and the Old Botany building on central campus was renovated and renamed Carrie Chapman Catt Hall in 1995.
In the 72-year campaign to win women the right to vote in the United States, several generations of women contributed to the cause. Catt stands out for her superb organizational and oratory skills, which over the span of 33 years, helped unite efforts to work with both major political parties at the state and national levels to achieve women’s suffrage.
*Source: Office of the Registrar, Iowa State University (2013, September 10).
“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).
Timeline of Catt’s Life
- 1859 – Born January 9 to Lucius and Maria (Clinton) Lane in Ripon, Wis.
- 1866 – Moves with family to Charles City, Iowa.
- 1877 – Enters Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa.
- 1880 – Graduates with a Bachelor of Science degree in general science course for women as the only woman in her class.
- 1883 – Becomes Superintendent of Schools in Mason City, Iowa, one of the first women to hold such a position.
- 1885 – Marries Mason City newspaper editor and publisher Leo Chapman in February.
- 1886 – Leo Chapman dies of typhoid fever in San Francisco, Calif. Remains in San Francisco, canvassing for ads and writing freelance articles.
- 1887 – Moves back to Iowa and joins Iowa Woman Suffrage Association.
- 1890 – Marries engineer and Iowa State classmate George W. Catt in June. Delegate to National American Woman Suffrage Association national convention.
- 1900 – Succeeds Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
- 1904 – Establishes the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and serves as president. Resigns as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to take care of her ailing husband.
- 1905 – George Catt dies in October.
- 1911-12 – World tour promoting woman suffrage and international peace. Visits Norway, Sweden, South Africa (meets with Gandhi), Egypt, Ceylon, India, Hong Kong, the Philippines and China.
- 1914 – New York City magazine editor and publisher Miriam Folline Leslie bequeaths Catt one-half of her estate (worth more than $1 million) “for the cause of woman suffrage.”
- 1915 – Returns to the United States and resumes leadership of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Organizes Women’s Peace Party with Jane Addams.
- 1916 – Proposes “Winning Plan” to campaign for suffrage on both state and federal levels.
- 1919 – U.S. House of Representatives passes suffrage amendment on May 21. U.S. Senate passes suffrage amendment on June 4. Continues to work to ensure ratification of 19th Amendment by 36 of 48 state legislatures. Proposes creation of nonpartisan educational organization for women voters.
- 1920 – League of Women Voters founded by Catt on February 14. Tennessee becomes 36th state to ratify suffrage amendment on August 18. U.S. Secretary of State certifies ratification of 19th Amendment on August 26.
- 1921 – Becomes the first woman to deliver a commencement address at Iowa State.
- 1923 – Co-authors “Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.” Retires as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and made honorary chair.
- 1925 – Forms the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and serves as its chair.
- 1926 – Featured on the cover of Time magazine.
- 1930 – Delivers commencement address at Iowa State. Receives Pictorial Review Award for her international disarmament work.
- 1932 – Resigns as chair of the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and becomes honorary chair.
- 1941 – Receives the Chi Omega Award at the White House from longtime friend Eleanor Roosevelt.
- 1947 – Dies at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., on March 9.
- 1975 – Becomes one of the first inductees into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.
- 1982 – Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
- 1992 – Named one of the 10 most important women of the century by the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation and presented with its Iowa Award for service of nationwide importance. Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics established at Iowa State University.
- 1995 – Dedication of newly renovated Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, formerly Old Botany, at Iowa State University.
- 2013 – One of the first four women to be honored on the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa.
Carrie Chapman Catt FAQs
This list of frequently-asked questions is compiled from questions the Catt Center has received from middle school students studying Carrie Chapman Catt for their National History Day projects. Staff at the Catt Center composed the answers, drawing on information from biographies of Catt and books on the women’s suffrage movement.
What was Catt’s childhood and her relationship with her family like?
Catt was born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, Wisconsin, the second of three children of Lucius and Maria (Clinton) Lane. The family moved to a farm near Charles City, Iowa, in 1866, where she lived the rest of her childhood.
She is described as self-confident and nonconformist, with her father’s stamina, sense of adventure and strong will, and her mother’s love of reading. She was a bright, independent student who was a leader in the classroom. At age thirteen, she discovered, much to her shock, that women did not have the right to vote. She was interested in science, and in her early teens she developed an interest in becoming a doctor.
Catt had a close relationship with her mother. Catt’s father was reluctant to allow her to attend college because he didn’t believe that women needed a college education, and he contributed only part of the cost. She remained close with her family after leaving home and recalled her childhood fondly.
A biographer of Catt (Jacqueline Van Voris) quotes Catt as describing herself as “an ordinary child in an ordinary family on an ordinary farm.”
How would you describe Catt?
What did Catt study at college?
Catt worked her way through school by washing dishes, teaching and serving as a librarian’s assistant. She joined the Crescent Literary Society, which only allowed men to speak in meetings. She defied the rules and spoke up during a debate, becoming the first female student to give an oration before a debating society. This started a discussion about women’s participation in the group and ultimately led to women gaining the right to speak in meetings. As an officer in the debating society, she learned parliamentary procedure, a skill that enhanced her ability to conduct efficient meetings. Catt also advocated for women’s participation in military drills as a form of exercise and established military drills for women. She was also a member of Pi Beta Phi fraternity.
What was her life like when her boss at the newspaper station harassed her?
What was Catt doing at the time she met each of her husbands?
She first met George W. Catt while they were both students at Iowa State. She renewed her acquaintance with him during her time in San Francisco, and married him in 1890 after returning to Iowa.
How did Catt’s husbands feel about her work?
George W. Catt supported her suffrage work both financially and personally, believing that his role in the marriage was to earn their living and hers was to reform society.
Why did Catt originally get into the suffrage movement?
How did Catt transition from school teacher to leading suffragist?
While in college, she established military drills for women and became the first female student to give an oration before a debating society. After graduation, she quickly worked her way up from teacher to principal to superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa, becoming one of the first women in the nation appointed superintendent of schools.
Always a proponent of women’s rights, Catt’s early success in jobs usually reserved for men convinced her that since women could do the work of men, women should also have the same rights. Catt became increasingly aware of the inequalities facing women in business and industry during her time in San Francisco, where she had moved to follow the career of her first husband.
Upon her return to Iowa in 1890, Catt joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, working for them as a professional writer and lecturer, as the association’s recording secretary, and from 1890-1892, as the association’s state organizer.
During this time, Catt also became active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1890, she was invited to address the first convention of the NAWSA in Washington, D.C., where she met important suffrage activists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Julia Ward Howe. She was asked by NAWSA president Susan B. Anthony to address Congress on the proposed suffrage amendment in 1892, became head of field organizing in 1895 and succeeded Anthony as president in 1900. During this time, she continued to give speeches, plan campaigns, organize women and gain political expertise.
From 1902-1904, Catt used her position as president of the NAWSA to forge new alliances with women across the world, leading to the formation of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). She served as its president from 1904-1923 and thereafter as honorary chair until her death.
In 1915, Catt resumed the leadership of NAWSA, serving until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Under Catt’s leadership, several key states—including New York in 1917—approved women’s suffrage. Tireless lobbying by Catt and other suffragists, first in Congress and then in state legislatures, finally produced a ratified 19th 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 19th 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.
Why did Catt assume leadership roles in the suffrage movement?
What were some of the challenges Catt faced while president of NAWSA?
What was the “Winning Plan”?
Who were Catt’s best friends?
When and where did Catt meet Eleanor Roosevelt?
What events in Catt’s life most impacted her?
Following the death of her first husband, Leo Chapman, she became increasingly aware of the inequalities facing women in business and industry as she worked to support herself.
The deaths of her second husband (October 1905), her mentor Susan B. Anthony (February 1906), her younger brother (September 1907) and her mother (December 1907) left her grief-stricken, and she spent much of the following eight years traveling the world as the president of the International Woman Suffrage Association to promote equal-suffrage rights worldwide. Catt’s travels opened her eyes to the progress being made for women’s rights outside of the United States and renewed her conviction that the fight for women’s suffrage in the United States could not wait for a later day.
How did knowing people’s opinions about her affect her place and feelings about herself?
What were Catt’s most famous speeches?
Susan B. Anthony is known for wearing a red shawl while advocating for woman’s rights. Is there anything that Carrie Chapman Catt is known for?
Catt sold some of her sapphire jewelry to help start the League of Women Voters.
What did government officials think of the suffragist movement?
In 1878, Senator Aaron A. Sargent, a friend of Susan B. Anthony, introduced a woman’s suffrage amendment that 40 years later would become the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution with no changes to its wording.
Although his support was initially lukewarm, President Woodrow Wilson was persuaded in 1918 by the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party to work to pass a woman suffrage federal amendment to the Constitution.
During World War I, women’s participation in the war effort helped to sway more men to the cause of women’s suffrage, including in Congress. The House of Representatives initially passed a voting rights amendment in January 1918, but the Senate did not follow suit before the end of the 65th Congress. The measure finally cleared Congress in 1919 with the House again voting its approval on May 21, 1919, and the Senate on June 4, 1919.
On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified when Tennessee became the 36th state to approve it – by a single vote. Young state congressman Harry Burn had been planning to vote against the amendment. However, after receiving a note from his mother that morning that included her strong endorsement of Catt and the exhortation to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification,” he voted “aye” and the amendment passed.
Did the woman suffrage movement in America, and Catt in particular, influence women in other countries?
For example, the idea for the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention was conceived by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott while they were at the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London in 1840. Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, leaders in the English suffrage movement, visited the United States many times. Americans such as Harriot Stanton Blatch, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns worked with the Pankhursts and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), introducing aspects of the WSPU to the U.S. women’s suffrage movement. In 1904, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) was formed by British activist Millicent Fawcett, Catt and other leading women’s rights activists from both countries.
From 1902-1904, Catt used her position as president of the NAWSA to forge new alliances with women across the world, leading to the formation of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). Catt spent much of 1908-1915 traveling the world as the president of the IWSA to promote equal-suffrage rights worldwide. She served as IWSA president from 1904-1923 and thereafter as honorary chair until her death. Two biographies of Catt – “Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life,” by Jacqueline Van Voris, and “Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician,” by Robert Booth Fowler –have information on Catt’s international travel.
After women got the right to vote, did Catt continue her work with the suffrage movement?
Catt’s 1919 speech proposing the League of Women Voters can be found at https://awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/2018/03/04/the-nation-calls-march-24-1919.
What were some of the immediate results of the 19th Amendment?
Many of the women active in the suffrage movement shifted their focus to social welfare policies and equal rights legislation. In 1920, 14 women’s rights organizations formed the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee to lobby for social welfare legislation at the federal level. They were successful in establishing a pension program for poor women with children, educational and industrial reform such as child labor laws, and the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, which provided states with federal funding for maternity and child care.
The number of women in the workplace rose, but very slowly, and employment was predominantly for white women in white-collar jobs such as typing, sales and stenography.
Many of these immediate gains were enjoyed primarily by white women because of barriers to voting in certain states, particularly former Confederate states, and federal restrictions to citizenship already in place on certain immigrant groups. Some of the state laws dated back to colonial times and some had been put in place to restrict the voting rights of black men after the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment. In addition, federal laws passed in the late 1800s and early 1900s barring immigrants of Asian descent from becoming citizens remained in effect through the 1940s and early 1950s, and Native Americans who had not given up their tribal affiliation were not recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924. These state and federal laws prevented many people from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 1970 and 1975 amendments to that act. However, census records show that approximately 500,000 black women of voting age in 34 states that did not have state laws creating voting barriers were fully enfranchised by the 19th Amendment (in states that had not yet passed women’s suffrage laws) or had their rights secured by the constitutional protection provided by that amendment (in states that had already passed women’s suffrage laws).
In her presidential address to the 1919 convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Catt described her vision for a “league of women voters” whose mission included this goal: “To remove the remaining legal discriminations against women in the codes and constitutions of the several states in order that the feet of coming women may find these stumbling blocks removed.” Catt’s 1919 speech proposing the League of Women Voters can be found at https://awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/2018/03/04/the-nation-calls-march-24-1919.
Did Catt always have the goal of world peace, or did her goal develop over time?
What was Catt’s main part in the Cause and Cure of War?
What do you think Catt’s legacy is for the women of America and for America as a whole?
In addition to her key role in the passage of the 19th Amendment, Catt also helped establish the national League of Women Voters. In 1919, she proposed the creation of a nonpartisan educational organization for women voters and on February 14, 1920—six months before the 19th Amendment was ratified—the national League of Women Voters was organized. Catt was honorary president of the LWV for the rest of her life. The LWV remains active today and is frequently a training ground for women who later run for electoral office.
Do you have any evidence about the alleged racist statements made by Catt?
The quotation on white supremacy that has been cited as evidence of Catt’s racism is from a book chapter written by Catt in 1917. In the chapter, Catt makes an argument for women’s suffrage and responds to opposing arguments, including that white supremacy would be undermined. She provides population statistics to disprove that claim. She does not endorse white supremacy with this argument, but critics point out that she also does not condemn state laws that disenfranchise Black voters. In the same chapter, however, she goes on to say that such objections to universal suffrage are “ridiculous” and “all people” should have the right to vote. Although some have stated in newspaper articles and opinion pieces that this quotation is from speeches Catt gave in the South in 1917, specifically Mississippi and South Carolina, no such speeches have been found and several sources documenting Catt’s travel between 1915 and 1920 show that she did not visit those states during this time.
Catt did not advocate for suffrage only for white women. There are many examples of this in her speeches and writings. In a 1917 article she wrote for The Crisis, the NAACP’s journal, she stated, “Just as the world war is no white man’s war, but every man’s war, so is the struggle for woman suffrage no white woman’s struggle, but every woman’s struggle” 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 unpurchaseable voice in the government.”
We encourage everyone to read Catt’s speeches and writings, many available here, and draw your own conclusions based on Catt’s own words in context.