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Women’s Suffrage is the term used to describe women’s rights to vote and the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States was the long overdue battle women fought in order to gain this right. Although Women’s Suffrage was granted in 1920, the fight to achieve this goal began many years before and was aided by many brave women who dared to stand up against the status quo and fight for what they felt they deserved: a say in the government. While many courageous women took a stand over the years, one woman is considered to be amongst the most influential in getting the legislature to pass. Through her years of hard work, dedication, and bold spirited action, Carrie Chapman Catt managed to secure not only women’s rights to vote, but an important place in our history books.
Carrie Chapman Catt was born Carrie Clinton Lane to Maria Clinton and Lucius Lane in February of 1859 on a small Wisconsin Farm but at the age of seven moved to Charles City, Iowa, with her parents who hoped to get a stake in the Gold Rush. She was raised in Iowa and attended after completing high school, was encouraged by her mother to pursue a higher education. Refusing to see her sex as a handicap, Catt graduated from Iowa State College in 1881, the only woman in her graduating class, and only two years later was given the position of Superintendent of Schools in Mason City, Iowa. She resigned from this post in 1885 and married her first husband, newspaper editor Leo Chapman, who died the following year, soon after the couple had relocated to California.
Carrie Chapman Catt’s brief relationship with Mr. Chapman, however, left a mark on Catt. Chapman was extremely interested in political change and social reform and used his influence at the newspaper to push his agendas forward. He encouraged his new wife to also pursue the reform of social injustice as did Catt’s second husband, George Catt. In fact, Mr. Catt was so supportive of her work for woman’s suffrage that the year they married, he agreed to sign a prenuptial agreement which would two months of freedom in the spring and fall to pursue her activism. She was quoted as saying “My husband used to say that he was as much a reformer as I but that he couldn’t work at reforming and earn a living at the same time … what he could do was to earn a living enough for two and free me from all economic burden, and thus I could reform for two. That was our bargain, and we happily understood each other” (Helmer).
While in San Francisco, Catt was shocked by the horrendous ways that working women were exploited by their male bosses and counterparts. It was at this point that she made the life altering decision to dedicate herself to fighting for women’s rights. Upon her return to Iowa that year, she joined the Iowa Suffrage Association, where she met fellow activist Susan B. Anthony, and began her work, which would eventually change the course of this nation permanently. One thing about campaigning for suffrage that Catt understood was that only men could vote for suffrage and so, she set out to convince at least one man in every town who she hoped would than proceed to convince other men. The National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was so impressed by her success in Iowa that they invited her to Colorado to continue in the same path.
Soon after, Catt developed and taught an educational course that trained suffragists on various ways to convince voters and legislators. Their main point was that “taxation without representation” goes against what our founding fathers believed and women are currently being taxed and yet do not have the right to vote for their representatives. Her success was cut short by the death of her husband and soon after, the deaths of her mother and brother. She was so devastated by the three deaths that she left the country seeking relief but found that work was the one thing that kept her from thinking about her misery. And so, Catt continued fighting for suffrage even while away, traveling the world with Dutch feminist Dr. Aletta Jacobs, and helping to organize and strengthen feminist groups in Africa, Europe, and Asia. After successfully presiding over various committees in major cities such as Amsterdam, Stockholm, and London, Catt returned to her work in the United States with intensity in 1913.
Her work from 1890 to 1920 was full-time thanks to the money left to her by her deceased husband but it did eventually lead to woman’s suffrage in the United States. In 1915, Catt, who was president of NAWSA at the time, was able to gain support of the very radical Alice Paul, even though they had very opposing views on how to obtain suffrage. Paul believed that the main focus should be to get an amendment passed in the United States constitution. Catt, however, saw that it was crucial to campaign on the state level as well as have a separate federal suffrage campaign. Her method, which she called “The Winning Plan”, proved successful, as suffrage was attained in 1920. At this point, Catt helped change NAWSA into the League of Women Voters, which became a group that educated women about their new right to vote.
Although her life goal had been achieved and women now had the right to vote, Catt did not stop her work. She continued to tour the country speaking on behalf of the League of Nations. She also published many works about feminist struggles and the suffrage movement in hopes of educating women worldwide to stand up for their rights. Catt became one of the most influential American women and worked hard up until her death in 1947 from a heart attack.
In closing, it is clear that Carrie Chapman Catt’s unrelenting efforts had a huge effect in the passing of suffrage laws in the United States. Having always believed in equal opportunity for everyone thanks to her upbringing, Catt did not let her sex hold her back. Furthermore, in her free time she also founded the Woman’s Peace Party during World War I and fought for relief for Jewish refugees and protection for child laborers. As a peace advocate, Catt was one of the first to organize anti-Nazi protests in the United States and headed the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War. A well-rounded individual who fought for everyone, Catt will always be remembered as a crucial woman in history.
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