Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Suffragists of every religion

‘I almost had to pinch myself to make sure that I was alive. Really this day has been one of the happiest of my life - now I have shaken the hands of Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian suffragists, and I’ve seen many a Christian missionary show contempt for the cause. [. . .] And I am in China - China!!!.’ Carrie Chapman Catt, born 160 years ago today, was a powerful figure in the American women’s right movement, leading up to adoption of women’s suffrage in 1920. She was also an important figure in the international movement for women’s suffrage, travelling widely, not least to China. She kept diaries on these travels, none of which have been published, although one biography does contain some extracts.

Carrie Lane was born on 9 January 1859 (though some sources give 9 February) in Ripon, Wisconsin, but moved to Charles City, Iowa, when seven. She studied at Iowa Agricultural College (now the state university), where she joined the Crescent Literary Society and helped bring about a change to the rules so as to allow women to speak. She also started an all-female debating club. She graduated with science degree in 1880, becoming a teacher and then a superintendent of schools in Mason City, the first woman to take that role in the district. In 1885, she married Leo Chapman, a newspaper editor, though he died the following year of typhoid. Subsequently, she worked as a reporter in San Francisco, again the first woman to do so in the city.

In 1887, Catt returned to Charles City; and in 1890, she married George Catt, a wealthy engineer, who supported her campaigning for women’s suffrage. She served as state organiser for the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, and then began working nationally for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1892, she was asked by Susan B. Anthony to address Congress on proposed changes to woman’s suffrage. Catt, herself, was twice elected president of NAWSA, in 1900-1904 (she resigned early due to her husband’s ill health - he died in 1905) and 1915-1920. During her second term especially, Catt successfully led NAWSA and the suffrage movement in general to win support from President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, and to the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which prohibits US states and federal government from denying the right to vote to US citizens on the basis of sex) in 1920.

In 1902, Catt had helped found the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, and was its president from 1904 to 1923. Thereafter, she continued to remain an active campaigner for women’s suffrage internationally. In the 1920s and 1930, she embraced the peace movement, and turned her focus towards anti-war causes, being particularly active in campaigning to change immigration laws so that Jews, being persecuted in Germany, could more easily take refuge in the US. For her efforts she was rewarded with the American Hebrew Medal. In 1941, she received the Chi Omega award at the White House from her longtime friend Eleanor Roosevelt. After the death of her second husband, Catt had two long-term close friendships with, first, Mollie Hay, and then Alda Wilson. Catt died in 1947. Further information is readily available online, from Wikipedia, Wisconsin Historical Society, Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home and Interpretive Center, Historical Dictionary of the 1940s, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Some pages of Kristin Thoennes Keller’s biography, Carrie Chapman Catt: A Voice for Women (Compass Point Books, 2006) can be previewed at Googlebooks.

Catt seems to have been a busy diarist when travelling. The Library of Congress has some of her diaries, but those from her 1911-1912 round-the-world trip are held by University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. The latter gives the following summary of its holdings: ‘Diaries of Carrie Chapman Catt, a noted leader in the woman suffrage movement, written during a trip around the world. Included are descriptions of places, people, and activities, including meetings with women's suffrage groups and their leaders; details of daily life; and commentary on area politics. The diaries are especially detailed for Catt’s visits to Palestine, South Africa, Ceylon, India, the East Indies, the Philippines, China, Korea, and Japan. Most of the diaries are original with some typewritten copies and some summaries written later by Catt.’

The only source online I can find for information on these diaries is Jacqueline Van Voris’s biography, Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life (The Feminist Press, 1987). This can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon. Van Voris makes the following general comment: ‘Running through Catt’s diary is a startled appreciation at discovering women who had been fighting bigotry and sex prejudice all their lives. She was gratified to find feminists everywhere: often the women were not aware that they were part of a worldwide movement.’

In one annotation, Van Voris explains: ‘There are eight typewritten diaries of varying lengths covering Catt’s trip around the world in 1911-12. The diaries are neatly typed on standard 8½" by 11" paper. Throughout Catt pasted postcards, some newspaper clippings, and a few snapshots. [. . .] The collection consists of 589 pages as follows: 1. South Africa, 181 pages; 2. the Holy Land, 55 pages; 3. Ceylon, 31 pages; 4. India and Sumatra, 46 pages; 5. Java, 98 pages; 6. the Philippines, 39 pages; 7. China, 95 pages; 8. Korea, Japan, and Hawaii, 44 pages.’ Elsewhere, in another annotation, Van Voris records: ‘Catt kept a diary of her travels in Europe and South America from October 8, 1922 to March 17, 1923. It had apparently been started in 1917 (although she later misdated it 1916) but had only three days’ entries. Catt had come across it when she was cleaning out her apartment and decided to keep it on this trip.’

Here is one extract from Catt’s diary quoted by Van Voris. ‘We met nine splendid, sweet, refined, enthusiastic, hopeful, lovable young women, and three equally splendid young men. We told them about the Alliance and that we wanted to have China join it. We asked them what they had done and were doing. What a splendid story they told us. I almost had to pinch myself to make sure that I was alive. Really this day has been one of the happiest of my life - now I have shaken the hands of Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian suffragists, and I’ve seen many a Christian missionary show contempt for the cause. How curious is the plan for the onward march of the world’s army of humans! Now my dear Chinese suffragists are going to give me a reception. And I am in China - China!!!.’ Van Voris adds this comment; ‘Catt did not use exclamation points often but in her excitement she splattered her diary with them.’

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