Many historians credit Carrie Lane Chapman Catt with the strategy and organizing abilities that led to the final passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted women the right to vote. Growing up in Charles City, Catt attended Iowa State College (now ISU), moved to Mason City where she taught school and became school superintendent, and then married the local newspaper editor Leo Chapman in 1885. It was during her Mason City years that she became committed to the cause of women’s suffrage, citing Iowa suffrage leader Mary Jane Coggeshall as her inspiration. After Chapman’s death, she married the wealthy engineer George Chapman in 1890 who provided Carrie with the financial support and freedom to devote herself fulltime to the campaign to win the vote for women.
Catt became close friends with national suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, the president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. When Anthony stepped down from the post in 1900, she chose Catt as her successor, an office Catt held for four years. In 1904 she stepped down to care for her husband who died the following year.
Catt returned to the leadership of the NAWSA in 1915 at a critical time. Tensions within the suffrage movement weakened its efforts. Some advocated for a broader agenda of women’s rights beyond the vote alone. A radical wing of the movement followed the lead of English suffragists by picketing the White House, getting arrested, and going on hunger strikes. Some favored a direct campaign to secure a national amendment to the U.S. Constitution while others advocated for a state-by-state approach until enough states came on board to secure Congressional support for the amendment. Southern organizations opposed a national amendment as a threat to states’ rights.
Over the years, the justification for giving women the vote evolved. At first, it was promoted as a natural right using the arguments outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Later, advocates often argued that it was women’s duty to protect their homes and family from government corruption or insure public safety. The issue of temperance was often coupled with the suffrage movement. It was assumed that women, as guardians of the home, would shut down saloons and similar male enclaves. Support or opposition to suffrage often closely reflected positions on prohibition.
Catt channeled organization resources to support state suffrage efforts as well as a continued presence at the national level. She also appealed to the growing strength of the women’s club movement to mobilize support at the local level. The NAWSA supported mobilization efforts during WWI and finally won the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson. In 1919, Congress finally approved a Constitutional amendment forbidding discrimination in voting requirements based on sex.
Ratification required the approval of three fourths of the states, 37 at the time. The NAWSA threw all its efforts into lobbying efforts of state legislatures. Southern states were opposed, but finally, in August, 2020, Tennessee approved ratification, and American women across the nation had the full right to vote.
Suffrage was only one of Catt’s causes. Toward the end of the campaign, she organized the League of Women Voters to elevate the voting process by educating the public on issues. She also joined with the international peace movement following the carnage of WWI. She died in 1947. In 1975, she became the first inductee into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.