Carrie Lane Chapman Catt enrolled at Iowa State Agricultural College in 1877, eight years after Iowa State opened its doors. Financial affordability influenced Catt’s decision to attend Iowa State, and she enrolled in two “ladies courses” that eventually developed into the College of Home Economics. She worked for three years on campus to pay for college. Catt washed dishes at nine cents per hour and worked as a maid in a dormitory. At the end of her first year, she began work as the assistant librarian for ten cents an hour, later becoming the library’s first assistant.
Her leadership qualities became apparent soon after she arrived on campus, paving the way for future generations of women who attended Iowa State. She created a women’s course in military training, Company G. The G stood for “Girls,” but women took their military work seriously, proudly marching around campus with broomsticks from the local broom factory and crisp blue percale uniforms. In addition, Catt joined the Crescent Literary Society, becoming the first woman to lecture before a debating society at Iowa State. Catt won the debate, a clear sign of her ability to speak in public. The topic, woman suffrage, foreshadowed the political work in her future.
At graduation in 1880, Catt was the valedictorian of her class. She moved to Mason City to become principal of Mason City High School, and eventually the superintendent of the Mason City schools. She met and married a local newspaper editor, Leo Chapman, and wrote a column for the paper entitled “Woman’s World.” She also worked for woman suffrage movement, going door-to-door in Mason City to elicit support for the suffrage cause and founding the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association.
After her husband died, Catt increased the time she spent lecturing and organizing for the suffrage campaign. In 1895 she joined the national organization devoted to woman suffrage, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), becoming its president in 1900. She resigned in 1904 as the health her second husband, George Catt, began to fail.
Eleven years later in 1915, Catt was called back to become president once again of the NAWSA. Revitalizing the group with her excellent organizational skills and speaking abilities, Catt focused the group’s energies on the passage of a national amendment guaranteeing female enfranchisement. Instituting “the Winning Plan,” a combination of activities at the state and national level, the NAWSA under Catt worked to coordinate suffrage work on all levels of the campaign. By 1916, eleven states had granted women full enfranchisement, and in some states, women could vote in specific elections. Finally, in 1918 the House of Representatives passed a suffrage amendment granting women the vote, but Catt and the rest of the NAWSA had to wait until the thirty-sixth state ratified the nineteenth amendment on August 26, 1920.
After women in the United States won full suffrage, Catt focused her attention on the education of female voters by creating a new organization, the League of Women Voters in 1920. She believed that an effective democracy required a well-educated citizenry. In addition, she founded the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War. She was founder and president of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, and worked to create the League of Nations and the United Nations. The Iowa State College Alumni Association recognized Catt in 1932 when it presented her with the Merit Award, one of the highest tributes bestowed by the college. She passed away at the age of 88 in 1947.
Nearly fifty years later, and seventy-five years to the day after the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, university officials renamed the extensively renovated “Old Botany” Hall to Carrie Chapman Catt Hall. Renaming the hall, however, caused a storm of protest over some remarks Catt made during the ratification process in the South. After failing to ratify the nineteenth amendment in two southern states, Catt remarked that white supremacy “will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” A grassroots organization, the September 29th Movement, formed in protest of the university’s decision to name the building Catt Hall. For over a year, the group pressed university officials to change the name of Catt Hall. Defenders of Catt pointed to other statements Catt made in which she espoused principles of equality for all peoples regardless of race. In the end, university officials stood by the name Catt Hall, and on October 6, 1995 Catt Hall was dedicated. Today Catt Hall houses the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.