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.

  1. What was Catt's childhood and her relationship with her family like?
  2. How would you describe Catt?
  3. What did Catt study at college?
  4. What was her life like when her boss at the newspaper station harassed her?
  5. What was Catt doing at the time she met each of her husbands?
  6. How did Catt's husbands feel about her work?
  7. Why did Catt originally get into the suffrage movement?
  8. How did Catt transition from school teacher to leading suffragist?
  9. Why did Catt assume leadership roles in the suffrage movement?
  10. What were some of the challenges Catt faced while president of NAWSA?
  11. What was the "Winning Plan"?
  12. Who were Catt's best friends?
  13. When and where did Catt meet Eleanor Roosevelt?
  14. What events in Catt's life most impacted her?
  15. How did knowing people's opinions about her affect her place and feelings about herself?
  16. What are Catt's most famous speeches?
  17. 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?
  18. What did government officials think of the suffragist movement?
  19. Did the woman suffrage movement in America, and Catt in particular, influence women in other countries?
  20. After women got the right to vote, did Catt continue her work with the suffrage movement?
  21. What were some of the immediate results of the 19th Amendment?
  22. Did Catt always have the goal of world peace, or did her goal develop over time?
  23. What was Catt's main part in the Cause and Cure of War?
  24. What do you think Catt's legacy is for the women of America and for America as a whole?
  25. Do you have any evidence about the alleged racist statements made by Catt?

What was Catt's childhood and her relationship with her family like?

Other than the basic facts of her life, little is known about the details of Catt's childhood.

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?

She was a curious, bright and determined child who believed from an early age that women should be afforded the same opportunities as men. As an adult, her organizational and speaking skills provided needed leadership for the campaign for women's suffrage.

What did Catt study at college?

Catt entered Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa, in 1877 and completed a bachelor's degree in general science for women 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, although some biographies state that Catt was valedictorian or graduated at the top of her class, the college did not recognize valedictorians at that time and while Catt was a good student, there is no information on her class rank.

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?

She was going through what she would later describe as the most difficult year of her life. She had recently lost her home, her source of income, her vehicle for her work for women and her husband. The sexual harassment from an editor was her first experience in her professional life in which she was not treated as an equal by her colleagues, and it opened her eyes to what most working women had to endure.

What was Catt doing at the time she met each of her husbands?

Catt was school superintendent in Mason City, Iowa, at the time she met Leo Chapman. He was publisher and editor of the Mason City Republican newspaper, which she helped him manage after their marriage in 1885. Chapman passed away in San Francisco in 1886, where he had gone to find a new job. Catt arrived in San Francisco just a few days after he died, and decided to stay there. To support herself, she canvassed for ads and wrote freelance articles.

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?

Leo Chapman supported her interest in women's issues. When Catt married Chapman, she gave up her education career and became his co-editor at the Mason City Republican newspaper. Both Leo and Carrie's names appeared on the masthead. She started a new feature called "Woman's World."

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?

When Catt was 13 years old, she asked why her mother was not voting in the presidential election, and her question was greeted with laughter. She was told that voting was too important a civic duty for women. As an adult, Catt recalled that day as a turning point in her life. Also, 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. She became increasingly aware of the inequalities facing women in business and industry following the death of her first husband, Leo Chapman, when she was working to support herself in San Francisco.

How did Catt transition from school teacher to leading suffragist?

Catt's superb organizational, speaking and writing skills were key to her leadership style and successes.

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?

Catt was committed to fighting for women's right to vote in the United States, dedicating 33 years of her life to the movement. She took the job as president of the NAWSA from 1900-1904 to continue Susan B. Anthony's work. She took the job of NAWSA president from 1915-1920 to lead the organization to its final victory of ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

What were some of the challenges Catt faced while president of NAWSA?

When Catt became president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) for the second time (in 1915), the organization had become badly divided over suffrage strategies. In 1916, Catt unveiled her "Winning Plan," which helped unite the organization.

What was the "Winning Plan"?

Catt's "Winning Plan" was to focus solely on the issue of suffrage (rather than also working for world peace or temperance, for example) and to campaign for suffrage at both the state and federal levels. Women in states that already had presidential suffrage (the right to vote in presidential elections) would work to pass a federal suffrage amendment. Women who believed they could successfully amend their state constitution would press for a referendum in their state, with most states working toward presidential suffrage. Southern states would work toward primary suffrage (the right to vote in primary elections), which requires only legislative action rather than amendment to the state's constitution.

Who were Catt's best friends?

Catt's closest friends included Eleanor Roosevelt; Mary Garrett Hay, her suffrage movement coworker and companion from the 1890s until Hay's death in 1928 and who shared Catt's home after the death of George Catt; Mary Gray Peck, a close friend since their meeting in 1909; and Alda Wilson, who lived in Catt's home during Catt's retirement years and sometimes served as her nurse as well as friend.

When and where did Catt meet Eleanor Roosevelt?

In 1921, Roosevelt heard Catt speak at the national convention of the League of Women Voters. Over the next several years, the two women interacted several times through their involvement in pacifist causes, and in 1927, they became close friends through their work with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

What events in Catt's life most impacted her?

At age 13, she asked why her mother was not voting in the presidential election, and her question was greeted with laughter. She was told that voting was too important a civic duty for women. As an adult, Catt recalled that day as a turning point in her life.

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?

Catt was a very private person, so it would be difficult to assume to know her feelings about how she was regarded by others. Her reserved nature was sometimes interpreted as coldness. However, Catt was described as self-confident and she was well-liked by many people in her life, from her childhood and her time at college, her time as a teacher and school superintendent, and in the years during and after the women's suffrage movement. She won the respect of suffragists around the world for her abilities as an organizer and speaker, her diplomatic skills, her personal dignity and her commitment to reform. She would have understood that anti-suffragists disagreed with her (and that not all suffragists agreed on how the suffrage movement should be run), but she did not let that stop her.

What were Catt's most famous speeches?

Catt's speaking and writing skills were key to her leadership style and successes, and she gave thousands of speeches in her 33 years of advocating on behalf of women's suffrage. Notable speeches include her presidential addresses to the national conventions of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1916 – titled "The Crisis" – and in 1917, which is often referred to her "Open Address to the U.S. Congress." In addition to her speeches on women's suffrage, Catt gave speeches on anti-war topics, foreign policy and the unity of women.

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?

There are a few reports that Catt would often wear velvet dresses, even when it was extremely hot. She had a particular dress that was made because she was sure of immediate success for when she stumped in states in 1918 and it was referred to as her "ratification dress." The dress ended up needing to be remodeled several times.

Catt sold some of her sapphire jewelry to help start the League of Women Voters.

What did government officials think of the suffragist movement?

The suffrage movement did not have the support of national leaders or political parties, though it was supported by some individual members of Congress.

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 14, 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?

In the mid-1800s (before Catt's time), the women's suffrage movement was emerging in a number of countries around the world, most notably in the United States and Great Britain. The relationship between the movements in these two countries began during that time and continued into the twentieth century, with each influencing the other.

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 suffragette 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, American activist Carrie Chapman 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?

After passage of the 19th Amendment, Catt's public career within the suffrage movement was mostly over and she began to transfer her attention to other causes. However, that fall she did visit the NAWSA's New York office several times a week, spoke at meetings and held briefing sessions for workers. She also stayed informed on the progress of legal barriers that opponents of the women's vote were trying to implement. In addition, Catt had founded the national League of Women Voters on Feb. 14, 1920, six months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Catt proposed the creation of this organization to educate women about their anticipated new right to vote. The League of Women Voters is still active today.

What were some of the immediate results of the 19th Amendment?

Women became active in the Democratic and Republican parties, including holding positions within the parties. Candidates from both parties began to appeal to women voters, and women voters began to help elect progressive policymakers – although turnout by women at the polls was low. Women ran for – and won – elective office, with seven women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1928. Women were also elected to office at the state level, although most of these positions were limited to state administration or "women's issues."

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.

Most of the immediate gains were enjoyed only by white women. The 19th Amendment granted suffrage to the majority of African American women in name only, with state loopholes such as poll taxes and literacy tests preventing many African American women – and men – from exercising their right to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Did Catt always have the goal of world peace, or did her goal develop over time?

Catt supported the goal of world peace her entire life, but decided to focus her attention first on women's suffrage. In January 1915, after the outbreak of World War I, she co-founded the Women's Peace Party with Jane Addams. However, she wanted to keep her focus on the fight for women's suffrage. After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, she was able to devote much more of her energy to pacifist causes. In 1925, she 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.

What was Catt's main part in the Cause and Cure of War?

In 1924, representatives of nine national women's organizations met at Catt's request to consider whether they could work together to produce better results with less duplication of effort. They formed the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and named Catt as the chair. The first Conference on the Cause and Cure of War was held in Washington, D.C., in January 1925, and conferences were held annually until 1941. Catt served as chair of the organization until 1932 and thereafter as honorary chair.

What do you think Catt's legacy is for the women of America and for America as a whole?

Carrie Chapman Catt worked 33 years for the right of women around the world to vote, including the final (1915-1920) campaign to secure suffrage for women in the United States. It was her "Winning Plan" to campaign for suffrage at both the state and federal levels that ultimately proved successful in the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. She used her organizational, speaking and writing skills to help unite efforts to work with both major political parties at the state and national levels. She led the final effort to win approval by Congress, the President and the states to approve and ratify the 19th Amendment.

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?

Catt often avoided discussions about race in her fight for women's suffrage. However, she argued for all women to have the right to vote. The quote on white supremacy that has often been cited as evidence of Catt's racism is taken out of context. In the book chapter the quote is taken from, Catt makes an argument for women's suffrage and responds to the opposing arguments, including that white supremacy would be undermined. She provides population statistics to disprove that claim, but in no way endorses white supremacy. In the same piece she goes on to say that such objections are "ridiculous" and "all people" should have the right to vote.

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.