Our Iowa Heritage: Carrie C. Catt – Iowa’s Champion for Women’s Rights.

Carrie 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.

Carrie C. Catt – The Women’s Suffrage Movement.

In 2020 – America celebrated the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment – giving women the right to vote.

But the work to win a woman’s right to vote actually began long before 1920. Held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, the Seneca Falls Convention was the first women’s rights convention in the United States – launching the women’s suffrage movement.

In 1848, taking up the cause of women’s rights, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton call a convention at Seneca Falls, New York, the first of its kind, “to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women.” The convention issues a “Declaration of Sentiments” modeled on the Declaration of Independence; it begins by asserting that “all men and women are created equal.”

In 1854, Frances Dana Gage brought women’s suffrage lectures to Iowa.

Between 1854 – 1869, lectures were a main form of entertainment, and female suffragists attracted curiosity.

Carrie C. Catt (Lane) was born in 1859, just as the women’s suffrage movement was coming to Iowa.

Carrie Lane in 1866 – Charles City, Iowa
The Lane family – Charles City farm

Carrie Clinton Lane was born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, Wisconsin, the second of three children of Lucius and Maria Lane. In 1866, at the close of the Civil War, the family moved to a farm near Charles City, Iowa.

As a child, Carrie was interested in science and wanted to become a doctor. After graduating from high school (1877), she enrolled at Iowa State Agricultural College (ISU) in Ames. To pay her expenses, Catt worked as a dishwasher, in the school library, and as a teacher at rural schools during school breaks. She joined the Crescent Literary Society, a student organization aimed at advancing student learning skills and self-confidence. Although only men were allowed to speak in meetings, Carrie defied the rules and spoke up during a male debate. This started a discussion about women’s participation in the group and ultimately led to women gaining the right to speak in meetings. After four years at ISAC, Catt graduated on November 10, 1880, with a Bachelor of Science degree, the only woman in her graduating class.

Mason City – 1883 – Carrie Lane became Superintendent of Schools.

After graduation, Carrie 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 in the U.S. to hold such a position.

1870’s – 1890’s – The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Iowa.

In February 1885, Carrie 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, 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, Carrie 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.

Carrie became active in the newly-formed National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), 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. From 1902 to 1904, Carrie 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. A world tour promoting woman suffrage and international peace took Carrie to Norway, Sweden, South Africa (where she met with Gandhi), Egypt, Ceylon, India, Hong Kong, the Philippines and China.

International Woman Suffrage Alliance pin (left) belonged to Carrie Chapman Catt. Carrie served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900-1904 and again from 1915-1920.

1916 – 1919 The Tide is Turning.

This national suffrage newspaper (above) seemed sure of a suffrage victory for Iowa women in 1916. To help spread the referendum campaign message, The Woman’s Journal sent two months of free issues to 60 dailies and 850 weeklies across the state of Iowa.

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.”

1916 – Song Book. Helen Cowles LeCron lyrics from stanza one (to the tune of When Johnny Comes Marching Home): “When Suffrage takes the Hawkeye State, Hurrah! Hurrah! The world will call us wise and great, Hurrah! Hurrah!” The cover of the songbook features a pro-women’s-suffrage political cartoon from Ding Darling, long-time political cartoonist for The Des Moines Register.

Pictured in 1917, Carrie C. Catt and Anna Howard Shaw, co-leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Shaw was also a physician and one of the first ordained female Methodist ministers in the United States

Under Carrie’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.

Victory – August 26, 1920.

In 1920, Carrie founded the League of Women Voters, tirelessly lobbying, first in Congress and then in state legislatures, and with the help of many others, the work finally produced a ratified 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.

Carrie C. Catt – 1921 and beyond.

June 14, 1926 – Time Magazine – An Iowa Farmer’s Daughter – In the 72-year campaign to win women the right to vote in the United States, several generations of women contributed to the cause. Carrie C 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.

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.

Carrie is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.
(C-0189) This 1948 USPS stamp celebrated 100 Years of Progress of Women and featured Carrie C. Catt (center).

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.

1992 – The coveted Iowa Award is given to Carrie C. Catt – Iowa’s highest honor.

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.

1948 – USPS Postage Stamp features Carrie C. Catt (middle picture)

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)

Amen, Carrie. Amen.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home, The National Nineteenth Amendment Society

Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947), Iowa State University

Carrie Chapman Catt, Wikipedia

Women’s Suffrage in Iowa – An OnLine Exhibit, University of Iowa Library

Carrie Chapman Catt, Find-A-Grave

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