Carrie Chapman Catt: Suffrage and the Politics of Race

By Crystal Brandenburgh

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of American women gaining the constitutional right to vote through the 19th Amendment. The upcoming centennial has sparked a flurry of new scholarship, including a reckoning over the often racist tactics of White suffragists, the exclusion of diverse voices from the suffrage movement, and the disfranchisement of Southern Black women, Native American women, and Asian immigrant women until later in the twentieth century. On my campus, this reckoning began 25 years ago and has not yet stopped. In 1995, Iowa State University renamed Old Botany Hall after Carrie Chapman Catt, a prominent suffrage leader and ISU alumna. Protests erupted because the demonstrators believed Catt had embraced racism in the suffrage movement. [1]

As an ISU History major, I decided to examine both Catt and the criticism, a decision that turned into a three-year investigation of Progressive Era race and gender politics. I found that criticism of Catt concentrated on two main charges: she used a racist argument to sway White Southerners to support suffrage, and she failed to stop the disfranchisement of Southern Black women after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. These charges, both containing a grain of truth, require context and nuance to be understood.

Carrie Chapman Catt was born on 9 January 1859 and grew up in a typical Iowa farm family. She graduated from Iowa Agricultural College, now ISU, in 1880. [2] After the death of her first husband, Catt became active in the Iowa suffrage movement. She quickly climbed the ranks through her talent for organizing. By the 1890s, she was one of Susan B. Anthony’s protégés and in 1900 she became Anthony’s successor as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. After five years of dedicated service, Catt resigned the presidency to care for her ill husband. [3] Catt was called back to the presidency in 1915, at a time of enormous stakes for the suffrage cause. [4]

In no region was suffrage more of an uncertainty than the South. White Southerners were consumed with a fear—inflamed by anti-suffragists—that woman suffrage would upset their racial hierarchy and end white supremacy. [5] Suffragists had to acknowledge this fear through a tactic known as the statistical argument which was first iterated by Henry Blackwell, famed suffragist and abolitionist, in his 1867 essay, “What the South Can Do.” He argued that White women so outnumbered African Americans in the South that white supremacy would be unaltered by the passage of woman suffrage. [6] It must be noted that, across the South, White people outnumbered African Americans, but this was not the case in Mississippi and South Carolina. [7] Additionally, this argument quickly became common practice among White suffrage leaders and it inherently perpetuated white supremacy. 

In her 1917 book, Woman Suffrage by Federal Constitutional Amendment, Catt listed seven objections commonly used by anti-suffragists. Then she refuted the objections one by one. To quell White Southerners’ fears, Catt repeated Blackwell’s statistical argument, writing, “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by woman suffrage….Woman suffrage in the South would so vastly increase the white vote that it would guarantee white supremacy if it otherwise stood in danger of overthrow.” [8] Catt then concluded, “Ridiculous as this list of objections may appear, each is supported earnestly by a considerable group, and collectively they furnish the basis of opposition to woman suffrage in and out of Congress.” [9] Thus even though she found the argument “ridiculous,” Catt had to address the racist fears of White Southerners, because their support was critical for woman suffrage to be enshrined in the Constitution. In fact, only three Southern states ratified the 19th Amendment: Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee; and Tennessee, the last state to ratify, did so by a one-vote margin. [10] While the Blackwell argument was one of inherent racism, it was also the tool Catt used to tip the balance in the South in order to enfranchise half the nation. 

After Catt’s extraordinary constitutional victory, at which White Southern opponents of suffrage immediately began to chip away, she handed the reins over to the newly-formed League of Women Voters and turned her attention to the fight for world peace. Catt had suffered the horrors of World War I alongside her friends in the transatlantic suffrage network and felt called to ensure it would never happen again. Thus, she told the younger generation of women activists, 

“For thirty years and a little more, I have worked with you in the first lap of this struggle toward woman’s emancipation. I cannot lead or follow in the next lap. I do not wish to advise where I cannot follow. Younger and fresher women must do that work, and because I cannot advise and cannot follow, I only point to the fact that the battle is there, and that I hope you are not going to be such quitters as to stay on the outside and let all the reactionaries have their way on the inside.” [11]

For Catt, age 61, the battle was done. She expected the League, her brainchild, to carry on where she had left off. But, as we know, the LWV ultimately refused to combat White Southerners’ relentless, successful, and long-lasting campaign of disfranchisement of Black women.

Carrie Chapman Catt died on 9 March 1947. [12] She repeated a racist argument to convince Southern Whites in the last years of the campaign, and then left American suffrage work after her electoral triumph. Though her rhetoric on race was shaped by the high-stakes politics of the suffrage movement, the documentary evidence proves that she became braver about asserting her own, more enlightened views after resigning the NAWSA presidency. She investigated and exposed racist rumors of Black military misconduct in Germany in 1921, protested against a Washington, D.C. hotel’s segregation policies in 1925, suggested returning land to people of color worldwide, and fiercely advocated for the publication of African American suffrage leader Mary Church Terrell’s memoir. [13] ISU’s Catt Hall stands as a reminder that progress in this country has been uneven and exclusionary, but it is still progress. As Catt herself stated in 1917, in her ideal world every woman could exercise democracy’s most powerful tool: the vote. [14]

Crystal Brandenburgh is a senior History major with a minor in Political Science at Iowa State University. Crystal plans to attend graduate school in the fall, pursuing a PhD in History. Her research focuses on Progressive Era Women in Politics.

Notes

[1]  “Catt: Figure of Controversy,” Off Our Backs, Vol. 26, No. 10 (November 1996): 5; “Suffragette’s Racial Remark Haunts College,” New York Times, 5 May 1996, 30.

[2]  Jacqueline Van Voris, Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life (New York City: The Feminist Press, 1987), 4-5.

[3] Van Voris, Carrie Chapman Catt, 64-65, 72, 79-80.

[4] Noun, “1872-1920: Carrie Chapman Catt,” 312-313.

[5] Aileen S. Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1965), 165-168.

[6]  Henry Blackwell, “What the South Can Do,” Leaflet, New York, 15 January 1867.

[7]  U.S. Census, 1870: The Statistics of the Population of the United States, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872; Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920: Volume III, Population, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922. 

[8]  Carrie Chapman Catt, Woman Suffrage by Federal Constitutional Amendment (New York City: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., 1917), 91, 93-94.

[9] Catt, Woman Suffrage by Federal Constitutional Amendment, 91, 93-94, 131.

[10] Louise R. Noun, Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1969), 321; Wheeler, New Women of the New South, 35; Elaine Weiss, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 305-310.

[11]  Carrie Chapman Catt, “Political Parties and Women Voters (On the Inside),” 14 February 1920, in The Woman Citizen, Vol. 4, No. 32 (March 6, 1920), 947-948.

[12] Van Voris, Carrie Chapman Catt, 218.

[13]  Carrie Chapman Catt, “The Truth About the Black Troops on the Rhine,” Woman Citizen, Vol. V, No. 40, 5 March 1921, 1038; Carrie Chapman Catt, “Report of the First Conference on the Cause and Cure of War,” 18-24 January 1925, 151; Catt to Arrangements Committee, Nov. 11, 1924, Box 5, Josephine Schain Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College; Catt, “Report of the First Conference on the Cause and Cure of War,” 18-24 January 1925, 150; Carrie Chapman Catt to Mary Church Terrell, March 2, 1939, Correspondence, -1954; 1939, Jan.-Mar,  Mary Church Terrell Papers, Digital Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Catt to Terrell, October 14, 1940, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Library of Congress; Catt to Terrell, October 30, 1940, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Library of Congress.[14]   Carrie Chapman Catt, “Votes for All,” The Crisis, November 1917, 19-21.

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