The Aug. 14 editorial in The Durango Herald “Who benefited from the 19th Amendment?” includes a number of errors about Carrie Chapman Catt and the impact of the 19th Amendment. Please allow me to correct the record.
Carrie Chapman Catt was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900-1904 and 1915-1920. She is the author of the “winning plan” that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which is the largest single expansion of voting rights in U.S. history. Catt also established the first international woman’s suffrage organization and established women’s suffrage groups on three continents. After the 19th Amendment was ratified, Catt became active in the peace movement and publicized the plight of Jewish refugees during World War II.
The editorial said there was no “contemporaneous rebuke” of Belle Kearney’s “keynote” address at the 1903 National American Woman Suffrage Association convention. In fact, there is. The Woman’s Journal, NAWSA’s newsletter, notes that Carrie Chapman Catt, then-president of NAWSA, refuted Kearney’s defense of white supremacy by saying, ““We are all of us apt to be arrogant on the score of our Anglo-Saxon blood but we must remember that ages ago the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons were regarded as so low and embruted that the Romans refused to have them for slaves. The Anglo-Saxon is the dominant race today but things may change.” She goes on to condemn slavery and the North’s involvement in it. As a minor point, Kearney’s address was not designated as the keynote and she spoke in the last time slot in the convention, rather than early on the program, where keynotes typically appear.
The editorial also said Carrie Chapman Catt gave speeches to legislatures in Mississippi and South Carolina in 1919, where she said “white supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” The source for this assertion is a 1996 Associated Press article written by then-Des Moines-based reporter Roger Munns; he was mistaken (“Suffragette’s Racial Remark Haunts College,” AP/New York Times). None of Catt’s three biographers mention that Catt traveled to Mississippi or South Carolina in 1919. Moreover, such a trip would have been a wasted effort, given the steadfast opposition to women’s suffrage in both states. Moreover, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center, which has found and archived nearly 100 of Catt’s speeches, has not found any speech by Catt that includes this sentence.
However, this statement does appear in a 1917 book chapter, “Objections to the Federal Amendment,” in “Woman Suffrage by Federal Amendment.” Here Catt uses 1910 Census data to point out that white women outnumber Black women in almost all Southern states, where a common argument against women’s suffrage was that Black women’s votes would undermine white supremacy. Importantly, Catt concludes the chapter by saying this argument is “ridiculous” and that the vote must be extended to all people, men and women alike.
In addition, Catt opposed two efforts in the U.S. Senate to insert the word “white” into the 19th Amendment. She also did not support the Shafroth-Palmer amendment, an alternative that would have allowed states to restrict woman’s suffrage by race or other qualification.
In fact, the 19th Amendment did enfranchise Black women. According to the 1920 Census, approximately 500,000 Black women lived in the 34 states outside the deep South and were enfranchised. By 1960, the last Census before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, more than 2 million Black women lived in these states. Moreover, historian Roslyn Terborg-Penn has documented that Black women in South Carolina and Florida successfully registered and voted in the 1920 election. In addition, Indigenous women who did not live on reservations and had renounced their tribal citizenship were able to vote in 1920 and all Indigenous women were enfranchised by the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.
The story of expanding voting rights in the U.S. is tortured, to our collective shame. In fact, every extension of voting rights had its limits. The 15th Amendment did not enfranchise formerly-enslaved women or other people of color. The 19th Amendment’s reach was constrained by racist restrictive federal and state voting and citizenship laws. The Voting Rights Act and the 26th Amendment do not address felon voting rights and the 23rd Amendment failed to provide presidential suffrage to Americans living in U.S. territories. Nonetheless, these are all important milestones as we march forward to create a more perfect union. Collectively, we must continue this march.
Karen Kedrowski is the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.Editor’s note: After we accepted Karen Kedrowski’s op-ed for publication, we became aware of a letter from Catt to Congressman Edwin Y. Webb of North Carolina in 1918, arguing for the passage of the 19th Amendment: “If you want white supremacy,” Catt wrote, “why not have it constitutionally, honorably? The Federal Amendment offers the way.” (NPR, “Yes, Women Could Vote After The 19th Amendment – But Not All Women. Or Men,” Aug. 26.)