Happy Birthday, Carrie Chapman Catt

On a cold November morning in 1872, in a farmhouse outside Charles City, Iowa, a drama unfolded that would change the course of history.  Thirteen-year-old Carrie Lane was breakfasting with her family when her father and their hired hand rose from the table and reached for their coats. They were going into the city to cast their votes in the 1872 Presidential election, Horace Greely versus Ulysses S. Grant. Carrie noticed her mother didn’t join them. “Why isn’t Mother going to vote?” she asked. Her parents laughed. “Women can’t vote,” her mother explained, to which Carrie asked? “Why?” Why, indeed?

            That question would confound Carrie Lane for most of her adult life, through college, a teaching career, and decades of activism that would ultimately transform her into the formidable suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt.  Why can’t women vote? Weren’t they as intelligent as men? Didn’t they care as much about their nation and its future?

  When Catt became an active suffragist in 1889 the 1848 Seneca Falls Conference was a distant memory. Considered the first formal demand for political equality for women, its influence had faded and the movement was mired in its own self-proclaimed “doldrums.” Initial leaders, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were aging, and while new leadership still worked raising funds, organizing conventions, circulating petitions – they hadn’t achieved much success. By 1900 women could claim full suffrage in only four states.

            There were no women in Congress to help. The first, Jeanette Rankin, would not be elected to the US House of Representatives until 1917. The woman suffrage amendment had been defeated in the Senate in 1887 and wouldn’t be proposed (and defeated) again until 1914.

            There was fierce disagreement over methodology – one faction saw success progressing state by state, while another favored seeking a constitutional amendment granting women the vote nationwide.  Catt developed a “Winning Plan” that would follow both paths. She was elected President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) not once, but twice, the last in 1915, in the midst of the battle for woman suffrage in New York.  A victory in New York could mean its 44 Congressional Representatives might tip the balance in favor of a federal amendment. The New York victory in 1917 was sweet, and carried them into the home stretch.

            When the 19th Amendment finally won approval by the House in 1918 (and again in 1919) and the Senate in 1919 it faced formidable odds for ratification by ¾ of the states. The final battle centered on Tennessee, the thirty-sixth state needed to ratify. The voting was intense, with skullduggery by anti-suffragists, last-minute vote changes and then – the result of decades of battle finally realized.

            Catt did not attend the tally of votes in the statehouse in Nashville, choosing instead to pace by the open window in her hotel room nearby. After years of defeat she could not bear to watch if the amendment failed again. When the final votes were announced the roar from the Capitol told her all she needed to know. The Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920 and formally adopted into the US Constitution on August 26, 1920.

            The ratification of the 19th Amendment might be viewed as a beginning, rather than an end. Challenges arose almost immediately, especially for African-American women who faced formidable obstacles to both registering and voting. And one wonders what Catt would think of the continuing problem of voter apathy; in 2018 only 55% of eligible women voters exercised the right that she had fought so hard for.

            But 1920 those struggles were in the future. Carrie Chapman Catt’s single-minded determination, along with thousands of others finally won the day, and the farm girl from Iowa saw her long-ago query “Why can’t women vote?” rendered resoundingly obsolete.

Antonia Petrash, Originally published in Newsday.

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