Carrie Chapman Catt, Open Address to the U.S. Congress, 1917
Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.
- Use this Primary Source with the Alice Paul and the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage Narrative, the Elihu Root vs. William Jennings Bryan on Women’s Suffrage, 1894–1914 Primary Source, and the Women’s Suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment Lesson to further explore the journey of the women’s suffrage movement.
Carrie Chapman Catt grew up in Charles City, Iowa, and graduated from Iowa State College in 1880, the only woman in her class. Before emerging as a leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Catt worked as a teacher, principal, and school superintendent. She joined the Iowa Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1886 and quickly rose through the ranks to hold multiple leadership positions. Her reputation as a speaker grew and, in 1892, Susan B. Anthony asked her to testify before Congress regarding a proposed constitutional amendment that would grant women the vote. By 1900, Catt had been elected to succeed Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1916, Catt announced a new strategy for the NAWSA, called the Winning Plan. The ultimate goal of this plan was an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it also encouraged state and local initiatives to secure equal voting rights. Catt traveled the country and met with national leaders in support of her plan. The following letter, written in November 1917, was addressed to members of Congress. Catt never addressed Congress directly but delivered the letter as a speech on several occasions during speaking tours in 1917–1918.
- Who was the author of this letter?
- Who was her audience?
- This letter was published in November 1917. What was going in the United States at that time?
|Woman suffrage is inevitable. Suffragists knew it before November 6, 1917; opponents afterward. Three distinct causes make it inevitable.|
|impregnable(adj): unshakeable or inviolable
heresy(n): something contrary to accepted doctrine or practice
|[First,] the history of our country. Ours is a nation born of revolution, of rebellion against a system of government so securely entrenched in the customs and traditions of human society that in 1776 it seemed impregnable. From the beginning of things, nations had been ruled by kings and for kings, while the people served and paid the cost. The American Revolutionists boldly proclaimed the heresies: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”|
|The colonists won, and the nation which was established as a result of their victory has held unfailingly that these two fundamental principles of democratic government are not only the spiritual source of our national existence but have been our chief historic pride and at all times the sheer anchor of our liberties.|
|aphorism(n): a concise statement or observation that contains an accepted truth||Eighty years after the Revolution Abraham Lincoln welded those two maxims into a new one: “Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Fifty years more passed and the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, in a mighty crisis of the nation, proclaimed to the world: “We are fighting for the things which we have always carried nearest [to] our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government.”|
|axiom(n): a statement that is accepted as truth||All the way between these immortal aphorisms political leaders have declared unabated faith in their truth. Not one American has arisen to question their logic in the 141 years of our national existence. However stupidly our country may have evaded the logical application at times, it has never swerved from its devotion to the theory of democracy as expressed by those two axioms. . . .|
|With such a history behind it, how can our nation escape the logic it has never failed to follow, when its last un-enfranchised class calls for the vote? Behold our Uncle Sam floating the banner with the one hand, “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” and with the other seizing the billions of dollars paid in taxes by women to whom he refuses “representation.” Behold him again, welcoming the boys of twenty-one and the newly made immigrant citizen to “a voice in their own government” while he denies that fundamental right of democracy to thousands of women public school teachers from whom many of these men learn all they know of citizenship and patriotism, to women college presidents, to women who preach in our pulpits, interpret law in our courts, preside over our hospitals, write books and magazines, and serve in every uplifting moral and social enterprise.|
|Is there a single man who can justify such inequality of treatment, such outrageous discrimination? Not one.. . .|
|[Second,] the suffrage for women already established in the United States makes woman suffrage for the nation inevitable. . . . It is too obvious to require demonstration that woman suffrage, now covering half our territory, will eventually be ordained in all the nation. No one will deny it; the only question left is when and how will it be completely established.|
|verity(n): synonym for truth||[Third,] the leadership of the United States in world democracy compels the enfranchisement of its own woman. The maxims of the Declaration were once called “fundamental principles of government.” They are now called “American principles” or even “Americanisms.” They have become the slogans of every movement toward political liberty the world around, of every effort to widen the suffrage for men or women in any land. Not a people, race, or class striving for freedom is there anywhere in the world that has not made our axioms the chief weapon of the struggle. More, all men and women the world around, with farsighted vision into the verities of things, know that the world tragedy of our day is not now being waged over the assassination of an archduke, nor commercial competition, nor national ambitions, nor the freedom of the seas. It is a death grapple between the forces which deny and those which uphold the truth of the Declaration of Independence. . . .|
|Woman suffrage is coming—you know it. Will you, Honorable Senators and Members of the House of Representatives, help or hinder it?|
- What was the purpose of Catt’s letter, according to her introduction?
- What did Catt claim were the two fundamental principles of democratic government? Where did these principles come from in U.S. history?
- Summarize the first reason why Catt considered woman suffrage to be inevitable.
- Summarize the second reason why Catt considered woman suffrage to be inevitable.
- According to Catt, what was the most pressing tragedy of 1917? Do you think anyone in her audience would push back on this argument? Explain.
Historical Reasoning Questions
- What is Catt’s purpose when she asks these rhetorical questions in her argument for woman suffrage?
- With such a history behind it, how can our nation escape the logic it has never failed to follow, when its last un-enfranchised class calls for the vote?
- Is there a single man who can justify such inequality of treatment, such outrageous discrimination?
- Woman suffrage is coming—you know it. Will you, Honorable Senators and Members of the House of Representatives, help or hinder it?
- Which of Catt’s three reasons do you find most effective? Explain.
- Compare Catt’s approach to securing the right to vote for women with the Alice Paul and the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage Narrative.
“Open Address to the U.S. Congress – November 1917” https://awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/2017/03/21/address-to-congress-november-1917/