CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio’s blog guest of the week: Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947).

Catt Collection, Bryn Mawr Archives, accessed through Google images
Carrie Chapman Catt
The battle for women’s suffrage in the USA was undoubtedly the most difficult, precisely because the American Constitution assigned the election laws to the states, not the federal government. Only a constitutional amendment could change this situation, and following the Civil War (1861-65) and the freeing of the slaves, negro men were legally enfranchised by the Fourteenth Amendment. But the women were written out. After decades of campaigning state-by-state, sometimes successfully and more often not, the leaders of the National Women’s Suffrage Association decided to change strategies and try for a constitutional amendment. Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt was the architect of that successful campaign for the amendment, which was ratified by the necessary number of states in 1920. Before that, even though a woman could run for president,as Victoria Woodhull did, she couldn’t vote for a presidential or congressional candidate, except in sparsely-settled states like Wyoming which had enfranchised women in 1869. Other western states had followed (including California in 1911), but the male voters and legislators of the eastern and southern states remained stubbornly hostile to the notion of woman suffrage.

Here, in the words of Carrie Catt and her collaborator Nettie Rogers Shuler, is a brief, passionate account from 1926 of what the women of the suffrage movement in the United States did, over the course of some seventy years (from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920) of campaigning for the vote:

"Three years were consumed in the process of writing the word male into the Federal Constitution, two more in completing the enfranchisement of the Negro. Both were strictly Republican party measures and were achieved by the combined political force of a majority party and the military power of the nation. The demand to include women in any further extension of the suffrage, although supported at the time by men of great influence in party and nation, was effectually evaded all along the way by the proposal to 'let the women wait – this is the Negro’s hour, -- the woman’s hour will come.'”

"To get the word male in effect out of the constitution cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign thereafter. During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to urge Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to induce State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into State constitutions; 277 campaigns to persuade State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to urge presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses. Millions of dollars were raised, mainly in small sums, and expended with economic care. Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could. It was a continuous, seemingly endless, chain of activity. Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended."

Clio wonders: How could we forget a campaign that was so costly in time and energy? How could it be that every citizen, male or female, does not cherish and exercise the right to vote, won at so great a cost?

Clio says: No citizen, female or male, can ever take for granted the right to express political opinion, wherever that right exists.

Source: Carrie Chapman Catt & Nettie Rogers Shuler, Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926) – from Chapter IX – “The Woman’s Hour that Never Came,” pp. 107-110. Quotes pp. 106-7.