Address to Congress on Women's Suffrage | Study Guide

Carrie Chapman Catt

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Address to Congress on Women's Suffrage | Summary & Analysis



About Chapman Catt

Born in 1859, Chapman Catt was a suffrage and peace activist who joined the suffrage movement in 1880. She was the daughter of a farmer and began breaking ground for women's rights early in life; she was the only woman in her graduating class at the Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). Following college, Chapman Catt worked as a teacher and eventually became superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa.

Much of her life's work was given over to supporting women's political enfranchisement. She served as director and president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and in 1902 founded the International Women Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) to advocate for suffrage around the world. In 1904, her husband passed away, and Chapman Catt dedicated herself to working with the IWSA rather than focusing on U.S. suffrage. That changed, however, in 1915, when she assumed the presidency of the NAWSA. A gifted political strategist and organizer, she created the "Winning Plan," which used coordinated state victories on suffrage to build a case for a federal amendment. It was during her tenure that the 19th Amendment passed.

She would go on to found the League of Women Voters following the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and she served as the organization's honorary president until she passed away in 1947. She also worked on other issues, including child labor and the plight of Jewish refugees during the 1930s and 1940s.

Women's Suffrage and the Abolitionist Movement

The movement for women's suffrage has roots in the mid-1800s abolitionist movement, in which women were given the opportunity to speak publicly and learn tactics for organizing. Leaders like Lucretia Mott, who would go on to be at the forefront of the suffrage fight, began their activist work around the cause of stopping slavery, and abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass lent their support to women's suffrage. In 1848, the First Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls endorsed the equality of all men and women, linking the fight for abolition with the fight for women's rights. By the late 1800s, women were also carving out more visible space for themselves in public, gaining education in larger numbers, and creating clubs where they had the opportunity to discuss issues of national importance.

However,the Civil War dealt a serious blow to the fight for women's suffrage and created a division between leadership. The 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship rights to freed slaves and anyone born in the United States, explicitly stated that males ages 21 and older could not be restricted from voting in any state. The 15th Amendment specified that those rights could not be denied based on race. While abolitionists saw this as a win for their cause, those who fought for women's suffrage saw it as a defeat that would set them back many years. As such, leadership became divided on whether to support the enfranchisement of black men. Leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not support the amendment and became allied with anti-black voting blocs and leadership as a result. This division on how to address racism would have ramifications for decades.

Racial Inequality in the Suffrage Movement

Despite its equality-focused mission and anti-slavery beginnings, the suffrage movement was shaped by racial divisions. Some of these tensions can be traced to the earliest days of the movement, while others developed as the suffrage movement gained momentum in the early 1900s.

The suffrage movement strengthened at a time of racial segregation; following the Civil War, women of color and white women did not make common cause easily. This is evident in the suffrage movement, in which white women often excluded women of color. Women's clubs in cities around the country would often exclude women of color, who founded their own clubs to fight for enfranchisement. Leaders such as Ida B. Wells were excluded from white leadership circles, and in some cases were forced to march at the back of parades during protests. When the 19th Amendment passed, the suffrage movement did not fight to ensure all women were granted access to the polls. States were allowed to pass restrictive measures that limited access to the polls to primarily white voters. As a result, it would take until the 1965 Voting Rights Act for black women to be guaranteed the vote.

Chapman Catt herself showed the prejudices of her time by fighting for women's suffrage while making racist statements. She denounced the enfranchisement of the "murderous Sioux" and suggested that voting rights end at "the slums." In 1919, she told Southern leaders, "White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women's suffrage." Although Chapman Catt was an effective leader who made great strides for human rights in the United States, women's rights activists have in recent years called for a more nuanced understanding of leaders like her. Regarding Chapman Catt's mixed legacy, the League of Women Voters stated, "These remarks are sometimes brushed over as a sign of the times or a political strategy. But actions speak louder than words, and our organization was not welcoming to women of color through most of our existence." The suffrage movement today is remembered both for its great accomplishments and its exclusionary practices.

British Suffrage and the Radicalization of the U.S. Movement

The British suffrage movement was concurrent with that of the United States, although British women were granted the right to vote in 1918. The British suffragettes used tactics that differed significantly from their U.S. counterparts, including acts of violence. While U.S. suffragists were focused largely on using official channels and dignified tactics, British suffragettes carried out bombings, vandalized art, and trained in martial arts to defend themselves against police violence. In 1913, suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby, drawing attention to the suffragist cause.

Although many leaders of the U.S. suffrage movement distanced themselves from their British peers, including using the name suffragists rather than suffragettes, some leaders of the U.S. movement, including Alice Paul, spent time in the UK and came away with ideas about how women could demand the right to vote with increased vigor. Tactics introduced in the 1910s included daily protests at the White House and directly targeting messages at President Woodrow Wilson, both of which were considered radical acts at the time. Leaders like Chapman Catt frowned on these tactics, which drew more significant police action.

World War I

The United States' entry into World War I could have caused the suffrage movement to fall apart, but instead it became a flashpoint for the movement. By the time the United States entered the war in 1917, the suffrage movement was on sure footing, with several states having already granted the vote to women. Chapman Catt's "Winning Plan," which used coordinated state victories to set the stage for a federal amendment, was at the point where advocates could make a strong case for the Federal Suffrage Amendment, which Chapman Catt did in her address to Congress.

Leaders, including Chapman Catt, argued that the United States was hypocritical to fight for democracy overseas while not supporting it at home, some even likening President Wilson to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Protestors, who were by then picketing daily in front of the White House, were using similar language and arguments, which drew more attention to the cause. Although such protests are common today, at the time, women were revolutionizing the way the public addressed the government and are credited with the first efforts directed at creating lobbying with their direct appeals to representatives.

The Passage of the 19th Amendment

In 1919, the 19th Amendment was passed in Congress, and in 1920, it was ratified by the states. It passed Congress by just one vote, showing how hard the fight for suffrage was. After the law was ratified in August 1920, women were able to vote in the presidential election that November, marking the first time women became a force for electoral change.

However, the fight for voting rights continued for non-white women, including black women, who were disenfranchised through state legislation, and indigenous women, who were not granted the right to vote by the federal government until the 1940s.

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