"This world taught woman nothing skillful and then said her work was valueless. It permitted her no opinions and said she did not know how to think. It forbade her to speak in public and said the sex had no genius. It robbed her of every vestige of responsibility, and then called her weak. It taught her that every pleasure must come as a favor from men, and when to gain it she decked herself in paint and fine feathers, as she has been taught to do, it called her vain."—Carrie Chapman Catt
This passage from a speech in 1902 exemplifies the passion, determination and eloquence that made Carrie Chapman Catt a leader in the struggle for woman's suffrage as it headed for triumph in the early decades of the 20th century.
Carrie Chapman Catt dedicated her life to campaigning for woman's suffrage both in the United States and abroad. In addition to being president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association at the time of the passage of the 19th Amendment, she published a book about the suffrage movement, and founded the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War. She also conceived of and founded the League of Women Voters, an organization that still plays an important nonpartisan role in our civic life today. She worked tirelessly for world peace, encouraging the United States to first become part of the League of Nations and later to be part of the United Nations. For nearly three decades, Carrie Chapman Catt lived in Westchester, first in Briarcliff Manor and then in New Rochelle.
Born Carrie Clinton Lane in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1859, Catt grew up in Iowa. After high school, she wanted to continue her education, so she taught school for a year to save money for college. She worked at various jobs throughout her time at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University), graduating in 1880—valedictorian and the only woman in the graduating class.
Her first marriage was to Leo Chapman, a newspaper editor, in 1885. She wrote a column for his paper titled "Woman's World," about women's political and labor issues. In the column she often wrote of the importance of women having the vote. She volunteered with the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, and the newspaper column gave her a voice for her cause.
Leo Chapman was forced to sell his newspaper after he took a strong stand against a local candidate, and he left Iowa for San Francisco to find work, but he died of typhoid fever shortly after arriving there. Carrie, 27, had been on her way to be with him, and she stayed for a while in San Francisco looking for work as a journalist.
In 1890, after returning to Iowa, she married George Catt, with whom she had attended college. Catt was a wealthy civil engineer with a specialty in bridge building. He was very supportive of Carrie's work. She often said, "My husband used to say that he was as much of a reformer as I, but that he couldn't work at reforming and earn a living at the same time; what he could do was to earn living enough for two and free me from all economic burden, and thus I could reform for two."
Catt worked tirelessly for voting rights, soon succeeding Susan B. Anthony, who was 80, as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1900-1904.
In 1904 her husband became ill, and she resigned to be with him. He died in 1905 at their home in New York City, leaving her enough money to live on. She moved from their apartment on West 57th Street to 2 West 86th Street at Central Park West, where she lived until 1919, when she purchased Juniper Ledge in Briarcliff Manor.
By 1915 she was ready to begin shouldering various responsibilities again. She was re-elected president of NAWSA. Catt recognized that winning the right to vote would require more than giving speeches (good as she was at it), writing manifestos, marching in parades, and lobbying members of Congress, so she created what she called the "Winning Plan," which involved the organization of grassroots chapters reaching down to the level of state assembly districts. She also devised a two-pronged strategy that pressed not only for a Federal constitutional amendment but also for laws and constitutional amendments in the individual states. Her abilities as organizer and strategist are widely credited with the final success of the suffrage campaign.
She shared in the widespread revulsion against the destruction and bloodshed of World War I, and she became increasingly involved in the cause of world peace. She supported the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to have the United States join the League of Nations, and in 1925 she founded the Committee on the Cause and Cure for War.
The Story of the League
In March 1919 at the National American Woman Suffrage Association's meeting in St. Louis, it was clear that final passage of the 19th Amendment was close, and the women were working state by state to achieve ratification by the needed 36 states. In the midst of this final push, Catt realized that NAWSA would at some point no longer be needed, and she founded the League of Women Voters to carry out what she saw as the next steps. Initially the League was described as a "mighty political experiment" to help 20 million new voters carry out their responsibilities, but from the beginning, the League also encouraged women to become active in shaping public policy. According to a 1963 interview with Tarrytown suffragist Sarah Walker, Catt said, "What are we going to do? We know nothing about politics. We've got the vote. Now we must learn to use it."
The LWV began with tables in department stores and hotel lobbies to show women what was expected of them when they went to vote. The organization has since grown, with offices on city, state, and national levels, with the intent today to provide nonpartisan information to voters of both genders.
The first LWV president, Maud Wood Park, referred to the first League platform of 1920 as a "kettle of eels." The League had selected 69 items they felt should receive attention, ranging from child welfare, education, and public health to classes on the responsibilities of citizenship. The League's first major national legislative success was the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act, providing Federal aid for maternal and child care programs.
Life in Westchester
In 1919 Catt was seeking a less frenetic lifestyle, so she purchased Juniper Ledge, a two and a half story dwelling located in the west end of New Castle between North State and Ryder roads. The house, built about 1910, was named Juniper Ledge by its previous owners. The estate was just over 16 acres, and here she was able to pursue her great love of gardening, extensively landscaping the property with both flower and vegetable gardens.
Though she was delighted to enjoy her country retreat, Catt remained politically active. From 1920-22 she worked for suffrage in Europe and South America. In 1923 she started the International Woman Suffrage Alliance to further the cause of women's right to vote all over the world. With another activist, Nettie Rogers Shuler, she published Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.
Throughout this time, Juniper Ledge remained an important base for her work. On June 26, 1921, an article in the New York Times described how 100 League members from the New York area arrived at Juniper Ledge to set up a picnic to welcome Carrie Chapman Catt home from Wyoming, where she had traveled to receive an honorary LLD degree in acknowledgment of the work she did to help the women of Wyoming win the vote.
The Times article also described a tradition Catt had begun at Juniper Ledge; she had made it a practice to dedicate certain trees to famous suffragists. In 1921, when the New York Times reporter was there, a tree was being dedicated to Esther Morris, a justice of the peace and a leader in the passage of the Wyoming suffrage amendment. Catt described her: "whose courage and persistence gave women suffrage for the first time in the world in Wyoming." Another tree was dedicated to Maud Wood Park, who had played an instrumental part in getting the Federal amendment passed, and had served as the first president of the League of Women Voters. The article also noted that Catt favored prohibition. Because juniper berries could be used in making alcohol, Catt felt that by buying the property she was making certain that "no one else would have opportunity to use the trees for that purpose."
Though she loved Juniper Ledge, she eventually found the home inconveniently far both from New York City and the regional headquarters of the League of Women Voters in New Rochelle. So, in 1927 she purchased a Colonial Revival home on Paine Avenue in New Rochelle, where she lived for the rest of her life, gardening enthusiastically and pursuing her twin interests of women's rights and world peace. In the last years of her life, she was also busy championing the newly formed United Nations. She died in 1947 at the age of 88.
In 1982 Carrie Chapman Catt was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. Catt's childhood home near Charles City, Iowa, is operated as a museum by the National 19th Amendment Society, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Her home in Briarcliff Manor, Juniper Ledge, was placed on the National Register in 2006.
Carrie Chapman Catt's home in New Rochelle. Photo courtesy New Rochelle Public Library Local History Collection.