In 1920, immediately before passage of the Woman Suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution, the League of Women Voters was founded by Carrie Lane Catt and her colleagues. The crusade for women’s voting rights spanned four generations, but the actual back story began long before the advent of recorded history.
Throughout most of human history and prehistory, women’s roles were played out mostly within their families. In public, especially in leadership positions, women’s roles were almost entirely subservient to those played by men. Before the advent of modern technology, most work involved physical muscle and physical skills developed almost exclusively by men and boys, and their preparation for adult behavior was reflected in physical sports and games. Though the Old Testament refers to the standard human life span as three score years and ten, the actual life expectancy was less than thirty years throughout the ancient world, which meant that women had to specialize intensely on child-bearing and child-rearing if the human species expected to survive, let alone flourish.
Looking back over the millennia, virtually all of the military and political leaders in every culture and every nation had been men, as were all the founders of the world’s major religions. In the Christian religion, the figure of Mary, a Jewish woman paradoxically believed to be the virgin mother of Jesus of Nazareth, was revered precisely because she was both a virgin and a nurturing mother, not because she exercised power or played anything like a leadership role. Eighteen centuries later, when the American Revolution established basic principles of democratic governance, the new nation staked its future on the educated wisdom of its citizens, but vested all political power in white land-owning men.
The American Revolution overthrew an obsolete and often brutal form of government based on the dominance of first-born sons that had held sway for at least three millennia. The new United States promised political and economic freedom, though women and non-white men were initially shut out of leadership roles and political power, including the power to choose their leaders. But as habits and traditions of democratic governance developed in the United States, they encountered challenges of rapid social and technological change, and eventually pressure mounted for true political equality, even if that ultimately meant amending the United States Constitution.
Shortly after the Constitution was ratified in 1787, several generations of strong, wise, and courageous women began building a crusade for equal rights. In 1792 in England, Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of the British philosopher William Godwin and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which called for gender equality in political governance. Her book was a clarion call, not only for woman suffrage, but as a preamble to the modern feminist movement in general.
By the middle of the nineteenth century in the US, the movement for women’s rights overlapped with the movement for the abolition of slavery. Abolitionist crusaders like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, for example, also supported woman suffrage. The first large-scale convention calling for equal rights for women was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. That event was organized by two women who also called for the abolition of slavery: Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose husband Henry Stanton was an abolitionist lecturer.
Mrs. Stanton authored a substantial essay entitled “The Declaration of Sentiments,” which expanded on the Declaration of Independence by adding the word “woman” or “women” throughout. This pivotal document called for social and legal changes to elevate women’s place in society and listed 18 grievances, from the inability to control their wages and property to the difficulty of gaining custody in divorce to the lack of voting rights. That same year, Mrs. Stanton circulated petitions throughout New York to urge the New York Congress to pass the Married Women’s Property Act. She eventually became recognized as a prominent author, lecturer, and philosopher of the woman suffrage movement, and she helped to guide the movement well into the twentieth century.
Susan B. Anthony, born in 1829, was fourteen years younger than Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her father was a Quaker, a farmer, and later a cotton mill owner and manager, and a friend of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Her mother served in the Massachusetts state government. From an early age, Susan B. Anthony was inspired by the Quaker belief that everyone was equal under God. In 1848, her mother and sister attended the Seneca Falls convention for women’s rights, but Susan herself did not.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony in 1851, and the two quickly began collaborating on speeches, articles, and books. Their intellectual and organizational partnership dominated the woman’s movement for over half a century. When Stanton was unable to travel due to the demands of raising her seven children, she would author speeches for Anthony to deliver.
In 1862, Stanton became involved in Civil War efforts and joined with Anthony to advocate for the thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery. After the Civil War, Stanton became one of the best-known women’s rights activists in the country. Her speeches addressed issues of child rearing, divorce law, property rights, temperance, abolition, and presidential campaigns.
In 1868, Anthony and Stanton co-founded the American Equal Rights Association and co-edited the Association’s newspaper, The Revolution. When Congress passed the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the US Constitution, which gave voting rights to African American men, they opposed the legislation because it did not include the right to vote for women. Their belief led them to split from other suffragists and create yet another organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1872, Anthony was actually arrested and fined $100 for voting, which brought national attention to the suffrage movement. In 1876, she led a protest at the American Revolution Centennial celebration.
By the 1880s, Stanton was 65 years old and focused more on writing than on traveling and lecturing. She co-authored three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage from 1881 to 1885. In the 1890s, she published the Woman’s Bible, in which she voiced her belief in a secular state and urged women to recognize how religious orthodoxy and masculine theology blocked their chances to achieve self-governance. She also wrote an autobiography, Eighty Years and More, about the events and work of her life.
In 1888, thanks to the leadership of Susan B. Anthony, the two largest suffrage associations were merged into one, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and led that organization until 1900. She traveled the nation giving speeches, gathering thousands of signatures on petitions, and lobbying Congress every year.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in 1902. Susan B. Anthony died in 1906.
Carrie Lane was born on January 9, 1859, in Ripon, Wisconsin, the second of three children. When she was seven, her family relocated to Iowa, where she later became the only woman in her graduating class at Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). She advanced from teacher to superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa. In 1885, she married newspaper editor Leo Chapman, who died a year later of typhoid fever. In 1890, she married engineer George Catt.
Mrs. Catt became involved with the suffrage movement in the late 1880s, joining the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, though her interest dated back to her teen years when she realized her mother lacked the same voting rights her father enjoyed. She also became involved with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and was soon tapped to give speeches nationwide to help organize local suffrage chapters. In 1900, she was elected NAWSA president, filling the seat vacated by the aging Susan B. Anthony.
Recognizing the international dimensions of the suffrage issue in 1902, Catt founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance to spread democracy around the globe. In 1904, she retired briefly to care for her dying husband, who passed away a year later. That loss, combined with those of her brother, mother, and Susan B. Anthony, left her emotionally drained. To heal, she spent several years traveling abroad and serving as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. She also helped found the Woman’s Peace Party in 1915.
Due to lingering racism, not everyone was able to participate in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Although the organization did not exclude African American women from membership at the national level, some state and local organizations chose to exclude them. Conventions held in southern cities like Atlanta and New Orleans were segregated. NAWSA also required black women to march separately during its 1913 parade in Washington, DC. Even within this socially progressive movement, racism persisted.
Mrs. Catt resumed the NAWSA presidency from 1915 to 1920. During that period, she devised the “Winning Plan,” which carefully coordinated state suffrage campaigns with the drive for a constitutional amendment—the plan which helped ensure final victory. She led the movement to create the League of Women Voters in 1920 during the annual NAWSA convention, which was held just six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. In 1923, she published a history of the suffrage movement, Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement. She also gave her attention to other issues such as child labor and world peace. After the horrors of World War I, she organized the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War in 1925. Concerned about Hitler’s growing power, she worked on behalf of German Jewish refugees and was awarded the American Hebrew Medal in 1933. Mrs. Catt served as the League of Women Voters’ honorary president until her death in 1947.