Leading Women to the Voting Booths

When Carrie Chapman signed her prenuptial agreement with George Catt, there was one unflinching stipulation: She would have four months each year to fight for women’s suffrage.

Such was the conviction of Carrie Chapman Catt, leading feminist and onetime Westchester resident. Chapman Catt grew up in the Midwest and attended the Iowa Agricultural College (since renamed Iowa State University), where she paid her way by washing dishes. But her true aspirations were outside of the kitchen. Chapman Catt led the inclusion of coeds in military boot camps and debate societies. 

After graduating Pi Beta Phi in 1880, Chapman Catt quickly ascended the public-school ranks to become a school superintendent in Mason City, Iowa, one of the first women in the country to do so. The promotion was rare for women, who were often told to stay in the classroom and out of the boardroom. Chapman Catt held a firm conviction that women possessed an inalienable right to equality, even if Industrial America thought otherwise. 

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For Chapman Catt, the right to vote was the foundation to realizing this equality. In a Mason City, Iowa, newspaper column called “Woman’s World,” which focused on political and labor issues, she made the case that full suffrage would not only amplify women’s silent interests but would also improve conditions for all people.

In 1887, Chapman Catt registered for the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. Within years, she was leading the organization. At the same time, George Catt, a well-heeled engineer and supporter of the suffrage movement, entered her life. The two connected over their shared alma mater and soon married. 

George encouraged Carrie’s activism, and, in 1892, Susan B. Anthony requested that Chapman Catt stump in front of Congress for the right to vote. Chapman Catt called for dozens of campaigns to help align the movement globally, later recruiting more than one million volunteers. Anthony selected Chapman Catt as her successor at the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

As Chapman Catt’s work expanded, tragedy stuck. Within two years, Chapman Catt’s husband, mother, and brother died, along with Susan B. Anthony, who’d become a close friend. To heal, Chapman Catt stepped away from her mission and traveled the world.

The suffrage movement, however, drew her back in, so Chapman Catt returned to the States in 1915 to retake the helm of the struggling NAWSA. She secured key donations during her tenure, including $1 million from essayist, socialite, and fellow suffragist Miriam Folline Leslie.

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However, the effort to seek full voting rights nationally was stalling. Chapman Catt released her “Winning Plan” strategy at an Atlantic City conference, calling for dual fronts to drive national pressure through state success. It was a playbook later adapted by the country’s Civil Rights and Gay Marriage campaigns.

New York approved women’s right to vote in 1917. Chapman Catt pushed the tide forward and gained additional support from the US Congress and the president. At the same time, she moved to Juniper Ledge, a leafy estate in Westchester’s Briarcliff Manor. Gardening in Westchester balanced an increasingly stressful public life. Dozens of colleagues picnicked on her lawns, with Chapman Catt reportedly naming her juniper trees after close friends and suffragists. This way, Chapman Catt, an avowed prohibitionist, could be sure no friends were fermenting the juniper berries into alcohol.

Thanks in large part to Chapman Catt’s leadership, on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution enfranchised all women by giving them the right to vote. One hundred forty-four years after the US declared independence, President Woodrow Wilson sent a succinct message to Chapman Catt, which read, simply: “Glory Hallelujah!”

Chapman Catt’s work was not finished, however. She turned to mobilizing the female vote for good, founding the League of Women Voters. The organization demonstrated the act of voting for women in stores and hotels.

“There are whole precincts of voters in this country whose united intelligence does not equal that of one representative American woman,” she declared.

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Amid the World Wars, Chapman Catt lobbied tirelessly for world peace and children’s rights, launching the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and serving as an adviser in the creation of the League of Nations. In 1926, Chapman Catt’s face looked out from the cover of TIME magazine.

Next for Chapman Catt was a move to New Rochelle. Her beloved Juniper Ledge proved impractically far from Manhattan, and a more convenient, stately house on New Rochelle’s Paine Avenue became a better fit. It was there that Chapman Catt died of heart failure in 1947. Juniper Ledge was later added to the National Register, while Carrie
Chapman Catt’s legacy of equality and civil rights endures well into the 21st century. 

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