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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Carrie Chapman Catt: Badger Suffragette

Wisconsin native pushed for women’s voting rights

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Ladies, next time you cast your ballot in an election, you can thank a Wisconsin native named Carrie Chapman Catt for her valuable contribution to women’s suffrage in the United States. The movement to grant voting rights to women was already in its 11th year when Carrie Lane was born on a farm outside of Ripon in 1859. Her time in Wisconsin was short-lived, however, as Carrie moved with her family to a farm near Charles City, Iowa, when she was 7 years old.

Because her mother had attended a prestigious women’s school in Worcester, Mass., Carrie received a far more advanced education than most girls in those days. Her family was also informed about U.S. politics and supported reform candidates such as Horace Greeley, who ran for president in 1872. It was during that election that she discovered women were forbidden to vote, which, in her mind, was a completely senseless concept.

In 1877, Carrie entered Iowa State Agricultural College (which later became Iowa State University) in Ames. Before she joined the college’s literary society, women weren’t allowed to make speeches at the meetings. After she took to the podium, women became equal participants. Carrie also noticed that women were excluded from the regular military training exercises held on campus, so she started a military drill company for her follow female students. She subscribed to the theory of evolution that was discussed in her science courses, and realized her life’s purpose was to help humankind evolve in a cultural sense.

Carrie was the only woman in her 1880 graduating class, and the valedictorian at that. She took a job as a high-school teacher and only three years later, at the age of 24, she was appointed superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa, one of the first women to hold such a title. In 1885, Carrie married Leo Chapman, the publisher and editor of the town’s newspaper, but he died of typhoid fever the following year.

After a brief stint in San Francisco, Carrie returned to Iowa, where she became active in the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. She revealed an impressive triumvirate of skills: She could plan an effective campaign, she had a gift for organizing and motivating people, and she could not only write a compelling speech, she could orate as well.

In 1890, she married a wealthy engineer named George Catt, who supported her suffrage work both personally and financially. At this point, she became involved with the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), what would become the country’s largest and most influential suffrage group. That year Carrie was a delegate to its national convention. She became head of field organizing in 1895 and succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the organization from 1900-1904, and again from 1915-1920. Under her leadership, the NAWSA streamlined itself into a powerful campaigning machine.

It was during Carrie’s second term as NAWSA president that the women’s suffrage movement in the United States finally came to a climax. On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving all American women equal voting rights. With the prospect of 20 million new women voters in the political system, Carrie founded the League of Women Voters to educate women about how the system worked and what they could do with their newfound political power. The League is still active today and continues to be the training ground for many women seeking office.