Address to Congress on Women's Suffrage | Study Guide

Carrie Chapman Catt

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Address to Congress on Women's Suffrage | Main Ideas

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Women's Suffrage

In the mid-1800s, women and their allies began calling for suffrage, or the right to vote. The United States had granted the vote to groups of men at various times in the country's history; early on, land-owning white men were the only ones allowed to vote in federal and local elections, and while states offered voting rights on a state-by-state basis, it took many years for non-land-owning white men to be granted the vote. All men in the United States were granted citizenship rights, including the right to vote, following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. However, women remained disenfranchised. Carrie Chapman Catt's address to Congress came at a pivotal time for suffrage. After more than fifty years, women had won victories in states across the country, and momentum was building for a federal amendment.

With this address, Chapman Catt sought to build support in Congress for the amendment by laying out why suffrage was inevitable. She argued that the right to vote for women is a pillar of American politics, and without it the country would never fully live up to its promise or ideals. A democracy that wants to represent the people must represent all the people, and a country that fights for freedom abroad, as the United States was doing at the time in World War I, must support it at home as well.

American Values

Chapman Catt appealed to the values that serve as the foundation of American democracy and framed them as being at odds with the denial of the vote for women. She cited the history of the United States as a revolutionary body that stood against tyranny, and the country's continued international presence as a champion of democracy, as evidence that women's suffrage had a place in American law. At the time, women's political voices were not respected or affirmed, but according to Chapman Catt, the United States itself threw off expectations and norms when it rebelled against the British to form a new country based on self-governance and equality.

Living up to those ideals, however, was something the country was struggling to do, according to Chapman Catt. Women's suffrage—or the lack thereof—was just one more chance for the United States to live up to its own values or to turn its back on them.

Democracy at Home and Abroad

America and her allies framed World War I as the pitting of an old world order built on monarchy against a new world order built on democracy, with the United States poised to become a world leader after she took up the fight in 1917. Yet for suffragists, the United States was still a place of unacceptable discrimination, namely against women at the ballot box.

Citing World War I and the United States entering the conflict, Chapman Catt questioned how the United States could be a world leader in democracy if the leaders of the country did not support democracy at home. She quoted President Woodrow Wilson's own commitment to advancing the cause of liberty, and then questioned why Congress would support that agenda while denying women the right to have a say in their own government.

State versus Federal Approach to Suffrage

Chapman Catt spoke to Congress in the wake of New York passing legislation giving women the right to vote. The victory was important, and it served as convincing support for her speech. Chapman Catt argued that the progress made on suffrage at a state level makes it inevitable for the nationwide passage of suffrage legislation.

While she was arguing for a Federal Suffrage Amendment, Chapman Catt had advocated for using state legislation as a proving ground to build momentum toward the federal amendment. This position put her in conflict with other women's suffrage leaders, who wanted to settle the matter once and for all with a federal amendment earlier on in the fight.

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