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Carrie Chapman Catt Childhood Home



Touchdown! Quarterback Catt Leads the Suffragettes to Victory


Where's the key?

Did you watch the news on Election Day (before the Florida scandal began)? I did, and I remember hearing puffy-haired anchors proclaim, "If you have any questions about where to vote, call us now and speak to members of the League of Women Voters! They are standing by to answer all your questions!!" As they spoke, the camera panned over a group of women looking very busy on the phone, talking animatedly and waving their arms around. This went on all morning long. "Call us NOW if you have any questions! The League of Women Voters is here to help YOU!" Indeed they were. The women answering the phones (all of whom were wearing "LWV" badges) looked friendly and knowledgeable. To me, the LWV seemed to be a one-stop information booth for confused voters everywhere.

I didn't know anything about the LWV. I just assumed it was an organization of a bunch of women who got together every election to help out state and county officials at the polls. And then I learned that it was founded in 1920 by Carrie Chapman Catt, a woman who always did more than simply "help out at the polls." My opinion of the LWV changed immediately.

Becky and Rhoda discuss Catt's life
Carrie Chapman Catt was one of the leaders of the suffrage movement (which campaigned for women's right to vote). In fact, she succeeded Susan B. Anthony as President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1900, and spent the next 20 years working towards that goal. In 1920, all her efforts were validated when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving 27 million women the right to vote. The suffrage movement, which had begun almost 100 years before with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "A Recipe for Equal Rights, Lucretia Mott Worcester's Wonder Women and hundreds of others, had finally won!

But getting the amendment approved and ratified by 36 states (the minimum number needed) was really, really hard! Catt spent most of 1919 and 1920 campaigning. The final vote came down to Tennessee, in August of 1920. After the state Senate approved the amendment, she wrote: "We now have 35 1/2 states. We are up to our last half of a state." She was referring to the fact that the state House of Representatives still had to pass it. On August 18, it did, but just barely. Author Jacqueline Van Voris describes the details of that momentous day: "One man was carried from his hospital bed to vote for the amendment; another who was on the train going home where his baby was dying leaped off the train as it was moving out of the station... The vote was tied 48 to 48 when a 24-year old first-term representative... changed his vote in deference to his mother's charge that he vote for the resolution..."

Amazing! I had no idea ratifying the 19th Amendment had been so difficult. Catt and the women of NAWSA worked tirelessly, travelling up and down the country, contacting politicians, lobbying in state capitals. They pushed and pushed, never letting up, even as opposition forces fought back. In April 1919, she wrote: "The politicians used to ask us why we wanted the vote. They seemed to think that we want to do something particular with it, something we were not telling about. They did not understand that women wanted to help make the general welfare."

Rhoda holds on to a piece of the past inside Catt's home
But Catt also knew that helping to make "the general welfare" would take a lot more than simply having the right to vote. Although the amendment made millions of women eligible to cast a ballot, the vast majority of them didn't know anything about politics, or how a bill becomes a law, or even the basic rules of election procedure. This situation would be comparable to getting your driver's license before you learned how to drive! What good would that be if you didn't know how to start the car or even hold the steering wheel?

So what did she do? She founded the League of Women Voters (as a successor to NAWSA) to educate women on how to use their vote and participate effectively in the political process. But the goals of the LWV went beyond education. During its early years, the League campaigned for "family issues" legislation such as child labor laws, minimum wage, mandatory education and equal opportunity for women in government industry. These, it felt, were critical if women were to be independent. One example was the League's campaign for the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act, a bill that provided federal aid for maternal and child care programs in the 1920s.

If I could ask Catt one question, what would it be?
Catt's life was truly remarkable. Most people would probably have taken a vacation after doing all the things she did! She got the vote for women and she started the LWV -- what else could she possibly take on next? Well, she took on the cause of world peace. She founded the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War in 1925 and spent the rest of her life working towards this goal.

Catt's life has been written about and debated. Many people consider her one of America's greatest women. Her name is synonymous with the suffrage movement. But, as Becky and I found out, her legacy took a little bit longer to hit home. She grew up in Charles City, Iowa in the late 1800s, but until 1990, her childhood home was in ruins, her achievements mainly ignored by the city's residents.

Catt's house looks beautiful against the bright sun and snow
All that is changing, however, thanks to Rhoda McCartney, founder of the National 19th Amendment Society. Although Rhoda has lived in Charles City all her life, she knew very little about its most famous resident. "If it's right next to you, you're not that interested," she said. But in 1990, after learning about Catt, she started the Society in order to buy and restore Catt's home. A decade later, her vision is coming true. The outside of the home is finished and if the grant the Society applied for comes through, the inside portion will be next. "My dream is to show what Catt has done in her life," Rhoda told us. She spends at least three hours a day working for the Society (as a volunteer, like the Trekkers) because, as she explained, "I think Catt was such a dynamic woman, so forward-looking as far as women's place in the world. She stood not only for the suffrage movement, but also for world peace. Her efforts and her work need to be recognized."

Smile! Daphne thinks the restoration project is great!
Rhoda took us inside the house and we were able to get a glimpse of what it will look like once it's restored. There is a ton of work to do -- the walls are gutted, the floorboards have been ripped up and the staircases are a bit wobbly. But there is a lot of history there -- and Rhoda is determined to make it come alive. Becky and I vowed to come back in a few years to see the results.

Rhoda and Daphne tour the inside of Catt's house
Catt's life deserves to be remembered, and it was very inspiring to meet someone as committed to this endeavor as Rhoda. But, more than that, Catt's life deserves to be respected. She dedicated herself to getting women the vote... and yet nowadays, less than half vote in all elections. Low voter turnout is an insult to Catt and others who worked so hard! Anyone eligible to vote should do so with pride, because it is still the most effective way to be heard in a democratic society such as this one. And if you're unsure of where to go or what to do... well, call the LWV -- their operators are standing by!


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org

Jacqueline Van Voris, "Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life"
Paperback (March 1996) Feminist Pr; ISBN: 1558611398


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Hooverized dresses? WWI in the first person
Stephen - Those crazy-sexy-cool sufferin' Suffragettes
Steph - Celebrate the cycle of life!
Daphne - An "untouchable" tour of a former gangster's paradise
Nick - Margaret Sanger: The stork's got nothin' to do with it!
MAD - Domestic violence: Not behind closed doors anymore