Saturday, August 14, 2010

75: The Self-Empowered Woman: Carrie Chapman Catt

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to Carrie Chapman Catt, a woman who worked tirelessly to make life better for women, but has sadly slipped into the dusty pages of history books instead of becoming a household name.

It is worth getting to know about her because later this month (on August 26) we will celebrate Women's Suffrage Day. That is when - 90 years ago -the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920, officially became part of the U.S. Constitution.

Because my mother was a teenager at that time, I've always been attuned to the fact that the right to vote didn't happen automatically. Anglophile that I am, the story of the British Suffragette who threw herself in front of one of the King's racehorses (and died) in the struggle spearheaded by Emily Pankhurst to give women the vote.

Here in America the two names most often associated with women's right to vote are Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but Carrie Catt (who was born in 1859) was the only one of the three who actually lived long enough to cast a ballot in a nation election.

Those of you who've heard me speak about how The Self-Empowered Woman began will remember that as a little girl I was baffled by the fact that boys had more life choices than girls. When Carri Catt was thirteen she asked why her mother wasn't getting dressed to go into town to vote with her father and the hired hand who worked on their farm. Her question was met with laughter and she was told that voting was too important a civic duty to leave to women. From that day forward her life had purpose (2: An Early Sense of Direction and 7: Magnificent Obsession).

When Carrie graduated from high school in 1877, her father refused to pay for more education so she taught school and saved enough money to enter Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), where she supported herself by working in the college kitchen and the state library(17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). When she graduated, Carrie was valedictorian and the only woman of her class (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In 1885 Carrie married the editor of the Mason City Republican. She had been forced to stop teaching because married women were not allowed to teach (!), so she began writing a "Woman's World" column for the newspaper. When he lost the paper she moved to San Francisco to find work, but caught Typhoid fever. Carrie left by train, but he died before she arrived; she was 27 years old and had lost her home, her income and her husband (12: Hard Times).

She stayed in California and worked as a freelance writer. She soon met a former college friend, George Catt, who became her husband in 1890. By that time she had begun lecturing and working tirelessly for women's rights . In 1900, Susan B. Anthony at 80 years old retired as the head of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and Carrie Catt became the new president.

In her long life (she died in 1947 at the age of 88) Carrie also worked hard on behalf of the United Nations and she established the Protest Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany; she is the first woman to win the American Hebrew Medal. By the time of her death, women in most developed countries around the world had equal voting rights (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Looking forward to your comments...


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  2. What an interesting woman Carrie Catt was. I was glad to read that unlike Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton she lived long enough to cast a vote.

    It's hard to believe that at one point women could not vote. In these times when so many people are apathetic about casting a vote it's good for us all to reminder that women were not given the right to vote but had to earn it- and we should never miss casting a vote in an election.

    Thank you for this wonderful blog.