Address to Congress on Women's Suffrage | Study Guide

Carrie Chapman Catt

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Address to Congress on Women's Suffrage | Quotes

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1.

Ours is a nation born of revolution, of rebellion against a system of government so securely entrenched in the customs and traditions of human society that in 1776 it seemed impregnable.


Carrie Chapman Catt

Chapman Catt spends the first portion of her speech recalling the values of the American Revolution and early foundation of the country. But first, she establishes that these values—including self-government—were revolutionary in the 18th century and marked a clean break with orthodox thinking. Although nowhere in this early sentence does she mention women's suffrage, she is setting up the argument that women's suffrage is a cause that fits within the tradition of American values, despite the ways it seemed to challenge conventional societal norms.

2.

With such a history behind it, how can our nation escape the logic it has never failed to follow, when its last unenfranchised class calls for the vote?


Carrie Chapman Catt

Chapman Catt opens her speech by discussing the history of the United States and the values on which the country was built, specifically equality, self-rule, and freedom from tyranny. She sees the failure to give women the vote as a betrayal of those values and here begs the question of how the United States can continue to leave millions of women disenfranchised given the country's pursuit of such high ideals.

3.

It is too obvious to require demonstration that woman suffrage, now covering half our territory, will eventually be ordained in all the nation. No one will deny it. The only question left is when and how will it be completely established.


Carrie Chapman Catt

In 1917, fifteen states across the country had granted women the right to vote. Chapman Catt argues that having suffrage in some states but not in others is unsustainable because it grants some women the right to vote in some elections but does not grant universal suffrage. Because of this discrepancy, she sees it as "inevitable" that all women will be given the right to vote, and the question is when it will happen, not if it will. She also questions "how" it will happen, leaving the door open at this point for either all states to pass legislation granting women's suffrage or for the federal government to do so.

4.

Do you realize that in no other country in the world with democratic tendencies is suffrage so completely denied as in a considerable number of our own states?


Carrie Chapman Catt

Chapman Catt invokes the rest of the democratic world to point out that the United States was in the minority of countries with similar ideologies. Great Britain, for example, was experiencing a spirited public debate about the matter and would grant suffrage in 1918. She is speaking here specifically about the countries themselves, not their overseas colonies where suffrage, self-rule, and citizenship rights were not granted to local populations.

5.

Do you realize that when you ask women to take their cause to state referendum you compel them to do this: that you drive women of education, refinement, achievement, to beg men who cannot read for their political freedom?


Carrie Chapman Catt

Here, Chapman Catt points out that denying women the right to vote forces them to be subordinate to men, including men who have less education, class status, or accomplishments than they do. She talks about women who are teachers, nurses, and in other professions as having to rely on men who are not trained or educated to vote on issues that affect the entire country, women included. In 1917, upper-class women in the workforce were still a fairly new phenomenon, as jobs like teaching were professionalized and higher education was opened up to women. Chapman Catt does not talk about working-class women, who had always been part of the workforce or women who did not have access to education.

6.

"There is one thing mightier than kings and armies"—aye, than Congresses and political parties—"the power of an idea when its time has come to move." The time for woman suffrage has come. The woman's hour has struck.


Carrie Chapman Catt

Quoting writer Victor Hugo, Chapman Catt argues that regardless of the political leadership or the strength of the state, women's suffrage was unstoppable. The state had used violence against suffragists, including beating, arresting, and force-feeding them. Chapman Catt's dismissal of that violence as not having any bearing on the inevitability of suffrage is a bold statement that rejects the authority of the government to decide what was right in the face of a moral failure such as denying women the right to vote.

7.

A few American Treitschkes we have who know better than women what is good for them. There are women, too, with "slave souls" and "clinging vines" for backbones. There are female dolls and male dandies. But the world does not wait for such as these, nor does liberty pause to heed the plaint of men and women with a grouch.


Carrie Chapman Catt

Chapman Catt is here referencing Heinrich von Treitschke, a German political thinker and historian who argued in favor of authoritarianism. By using "Treitschkes" to describe men who thought they knew "better than women what is good for them," she is suggesting they are opposed to democracy and aligning them with German nationalism, which the United States was fighting against. She goes on to condemn women who oppose suffrage, suggesting they are choosing to be enslaved to male domination of politics and are not strong enough to fight for their own rights. Chapman Catt dismisses their concerns, stating that history doesn't stop for people like this and that suffrage needs to be passed without concern for those who oppose it.

8.

Some of you have grown old in party service. Are you willing that those who take your places by and by shall blame you for having failed to keep pace with the world and thus having lost for them a party advantage?


Carrie Chapman Catt

Here, Chapman Catt plays on the vanity of the men she's addressing by suggesting that if they oppose suffrage, history will remember them as having been behind the times and out of step with the rest of the country. Invoking that they have "grown old in party service" suggests that no matter what else they have done in their long careers, suffrage will be the issue on which these men will be remembered. What's more, she argues that any party that stands against suffrage would lose favor with voters.

9.

If parties prefer to postpone action longer and thus do battle with this idea, they challenge the inevitable. The idea will not perish; the party that opposes it may. Every delay, every trick, every political dishonesty from now on will antagonize the women of the land more and more, and when the party or parties which have so delayed woman suffrage finally let it come, their sincerity will be doubted and their appeal to the new voters will be met with suspicion. This is the psychology of the situation. Can you afford the risk? Think it over.


Carrie Chapman Catt

Much of Chapman Catt's speech focuses on the ways in which Congress has a choice: either support suffrage or face the consequences of being behind the times. Here, she spells out those consequences explicitly. According to Chapman Catt, suffrage as an idea is now too entrenched in public discourse to go away; instead, continued denial of suffrage will only fan the flames more and pit women and their allies against any political party that votes against it. She also suggests that now is the time to make a decision because doing so later will not be received with goodwill.

10.

Your party platforms have pledged women suffrage. Then why not be honest, frank friends of our cause, adopt it in reality as your own, make it a party program, and "fight with us"?


Carrie Chapman Catt

By 1917, Republicans and Democrats had made women's suffrage part of their party platforms. However, the cause did not seem to have full support among voting members of Congress, and as such, the passage of a federal amendment enfranchising women was not a given, despite these endorsements. Here, Chapman Catt calls into question the real meaning of such party pledges. If the parties support suffrage, she says, then Congress should actually fight for it and grant women the right to vote.

11.

Eighty years after the Revolution, Abraham Lincoln welded those two maxims into a new one: "Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Fifty years more passed and the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, in a mighty crisis of the nation, proclaimed to the world: "We are fighting for the things which we have always carried nearest to our hearts: for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government." All the way between these immortal aphorisms political leaders have declared unabated faith in their truth. Not one American has arisen to question their logic in the 141 years of our national existence. However stupidly our country may have evaded the logical application at times, it has never swerved from its devotion to the theory of democracy as expressed by those two axioms.


Carrie Chapman Catt

With the United States' entrance into World War I came a shift in how suffragists spoke about women's suffrage, framing it as a reflection of the values American soldiers were supposedly fighting for. Chapman Catt recalls a quote by President Wilson in which he speaks about the ideals for which the United States is fighting and a quote by President Lincoln in which he outlines the vision of U.S. democracy. However, she speaks also of the gap between democracy in "theory" and in practice.

12.

Some of you hold to the doctrine of states' rights as applying to woman suffrage. Adherence to that theory will keep the United States far behind all other democratic nations upon this question. A theory which prevents a nation from keeping up with the trend of world progress cannot be justified.


Carrie Chapman Catt

One of the core tensions in the U.S. political system is between federal and states' rights, and where one ends and the other begins. On the issue of suffrage, the states had been given jurisdiction on determining whether women could vote, a system that created a disparity between women's rights in various states. Here, Chapman Catt argues that continuing such a process would take too long for women's suffrage to become universal, and that instead, it is an unjustifiable measure that would only hold up necessary progress.

13.

Some of you have been too indifferent to give more than casual attention to this question. It is worthy of your immediate consideration. A question big enough to engage the attention of our allies in wartime is too big a question for you to neglect.


Carrie Chapman Catt

Here, Chapman Catt is accusing some members of Congress of not taking suffrage seriously enough as a cause. She is implying that those who only give suffrage "casual attention" are not in favor of it and that it must be given due focus. She makes reference to the widespread debate on women's suffrage in Canada and Great Britain, both of which saw large-scale protests and discussion around women's suffrage during World War I and suggests that if the matter of women's suffrage is important to our allies it should be important to Congress.

14.

To you and the supporters of our cause in Senate and House, and the number is large, the suffragists of the nation express their grateful thanks. This address is not meant for you. We are more truly appreciative of all you have done than any words can express.


Carrie Chapman Catt

Much of Chapman Catt's rhetoric is used to create an in-group mentality among those who do support women's suffrage, as opposed to those who do not. By framing suffrage as a foregone conclusion and those who oppose it as powerless to stop it, she effectively leaves listeners with little choice but to embrace suffrage, if in word rather than deed. Here, however, she specifically celebrates those who have been fighting for suffrage and makes clear that the cause has many allies in power.

15.

Not a people, race, or class striving for freedom is there anywhere in the world that has not made our axioms the chief weapon of the struggle. More, all men and women the world around, with farsighted vision into the verities of things, know that the world tragedy of our day is not now being waged over the assassination of an archduke, nor commercial competition, nor national ambitions, nor the freedom of the seas. It is a death grapple between the forces which deny and those which uphold the truths of the Declaration of Independence.


Carrie Chapman Catt

Chapman Catt points out that the United States has become synonymous with its values, particularly with democracy, and that countries around the world look to the United States as a leader and model in government. According to Chapman Catt, however, those with "farsighted vision" recognize that the great fight for democracy is not rooted in current events, but in larger questions of the moral application of democratic ideals, such as extending the right to vote.

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