This blog is a part of the Iowa Women’s Foundation’s series for Women’s History Month, where we spotlight the Iowans who made an impact on the lives of women everywhere. A special thank-you to Dianne Bystrom, Ph.D., director, Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, Iowa State University for writing this article.
The History & Legacy of Carrie Chapman Catt
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt devoted 33 years of her life to winning women the right to vote, serving twice as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her superb oratory and organizational skills helped lead to ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote in 1920.
Born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, WI, Catt moved with her family to a farm near Charles City, IA, in 1866. She earned a bachelor’s degree in general science from Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) 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.
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, she was appointed Mason City school superintendent, one of the first women to hold such a position. In 1885, she married the publisher of the Mason City Republican newspaper, Leo Chapman, who died the following year. In 1887, Catt joined the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, organized events throughout the state, and worked as a professional lecturer. In 1890, she married wealthy engineer George W. Catt and moved to Seattle, WA. With his financial support, she continued to travel the country to work on behalf of women’s suffrage.
In 1900, Catt was elected president of the NAWSA, but resigned in 1904 to care for her ailing husband, who died in 1905. She spent most of the next nine years promoting suffrage rights worldwide as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. In 1915, Catt resumed leadership of NAWSA, and proposed her “Winning Plan” to work for passage of a federal constitutional suffrage amendment. Tireless lobbying by Catt and other suffragists produced a ratified 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920. Six months before the amendment was ratified, Catt founded the League of Women Voters on February 14, 1920.
In 1921, Catt became the first woman to deliver a commencement address at Iowa State University. She returned in 1930 to deliver the commencement address. Catt died on March 9, 1947, in New Rochelle, NY. She donated her estate to her alma mater.
Catt 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, she was named one of the 10 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 was renovated and renamed Carrie Chapman Catt Hall in 1995. In 2013, Catt was one of the four women selected to be honored on the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge in Des Moines, IA.