I have to admit never having heard of this badass lady until she was a clue on Jeopardy! the other day. The clue said she founded The League of Women Voters and I thought to myself, “Hey! She sounds like a badass lady!” So I did a little research, and it turns out, she was! Like so many women of the suffrage movement, Catt was able to become involved in social reform due to her wealthy status. In her case, although her family of origin was not particularly wealthy, after her first husband died Catt married George Catt, a wealthy engineer who supported her participation in suffrage. It was even a part of their prenuptial agreement – she was “given” four months a year to work exclusively and travel for suffrage causes.
Even before marrying George Catt, Carrie Chapman Catt was a feminist – she was the only woman in her class at Iowa State College (now University). She became involved with the suffrage movement and rose in the ranks of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA); she succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the NAWSA in 1900. She stepped down in 1905 to care for her husband, who was dying and then was reelected as president in 1915 – a position she held through the passage of the 19th amendment. The League of Women Voters was actually formed six months prior to the ratification of the 19th amendment, in Chicago where women already had the right to vote. The League of Women Voters started off with a bang, with radical reforms to social welfare by pushing for the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921. The Sheppard-Towner Act provided federal funds for child care and maternal care, a first. It was later ruled unconstitutional byt the Supreme Court, but it was a major step in getting federal aid for social welfare causes.
Unsurprisingly, the FBI had a file on Catt in the ’20s, as they did with many prominent feminist leaders of the era, due to concerns about her “radical propaganda.” But she never had any encounters with them and never knew that the FBI was monitoring her activities.
The League of Women Voters has been an important force behind key decisions for women throughout the decades and has rallied in support of a variety of civil rights and social welfare issues, including support the woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices.
Unfortunately, as with so many of the other white, upper-class suffragettes of the decade, Catt’s vision of women’s political and social advancement did not necessarily include women of color. Catt was quoted as saying, “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” Catt apparently said this as part of an attempt to gain Southern support for suffrage. Although given the racist undercurrent of the suffrage movement, it’s reasonable to imagine that rights of women of color were not a priority for Catt. During World Ware II, Catt actively worked against the Nazis and was outspoken against Nazi persecution of Jewish people.
Image credit: By Adm58 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons