Carrie Chapman Catt is one of the key leaders of the suffrage movement. She succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1900 to 1904. She again assumed its presidency in 1915. This can be viewed as the beginning of the final push after a long struggle. By 1915, NAWSA had grown large and powerful; with 44 state auxiliaries, each with local branches, the total membership was more than 2 million.
When Mrs. Catt assumed the presidency of NAWSA, she was convinced that pursuing a federal amendment was the only way to achieve voting rights for all women and proceeded to turn the focus of the organization to the federal amendment. She put forth a plan to the leadership that called for simultaneously working for the federal amendment and the state by state approach. Later called her “Winning Plan,” it was as follows:
- Women in states with presidential suffrage would work to pass a federal suffrage amendment
- Women who believed they could successfully amend their state constitution would press for a referendum.
- Most states would work toward presidential suffrage, which the legislature could decide.
- Southern states would work toward primary suffrage.
This formed a compact that had to be signed by at least 36 state suffrage associations. Thirty-six was the number of states needed to ratify a federal amendment.
When the US entered World War I and when asked to support the war, in typical Catt fashion, she said NAWSA would add the war effort to its duties. Mrs. Catt created war effort departments within NAWSA including Food Conservation, Protection of Women in Industry, and Overseas Hospitals. They also collaborated with other women’s organizations in these efforts. Mrs. Catt, herself, was also “commandeered” for service in the Women’s Division of the Liberty Loan Committee. But suffrage work continued, particularly in Congress as first Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin took her seat. NAWSA participated in hearings held in that session by the Woman Suffrage Committee of the Senate. Although Congress had a “gentleman’s agreement” not to take up any non-war legislation, the House of Representatives did create a Woman Suffrage Committee as the Senate had already done. However, NAWSA volunteers were not always available for suffrage work on the amendment because many had volunteered for war service on the home front. Women’s support for the war effort was one argument used in favor of suffrage.
When the House passed the amendment on January 10, 1918, after a Congressional speech of support by President Wilson and much effort by suffragists, Mrs. Catt was very present. She led NAWSA’s visits to give personal thanks to supporters. She was received by President Wilson for congratulations and thanks shortly after the vote.
When the Amendment was finally passed by both houses of Congress (on the third try) in 1919, she and NAWSA worked coast-to-coast for its ratification by at least 36 states. During the ratification process, she led the effort to use the legacy of NAWSA to create “a mighty political experiment”–a League of Women Voters–to educate the electorate in a non-partisan manner, to register voters, and to encourage women to run for office.
Mrs. Catt’s exceptional organizational skills, networking ability, and personal influence were vital to achieving American women’s right to vote. And her political vision endures today with the still influential League of Women Voters.
Mrs. Catt was also active in the international suffrage movement. In 1902 she co-founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, still active today as the International Alliance of Women, and served as its president until 1923.
Maud Wood Park, edited by Edna Lamprey Stantial, Front Door Lobby (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964): p. 11.
Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Carrie Chapman Catt Collection.