Learning from Carrie Chapman Catt

Side view of woman, chest up.
Carrie Chapman Catt circa 1901. Public domain.


Carrie Chapman Catt is famous for her leadership of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She was born in Wisconsin in 1859 and grew up in Iowa. She was the only woman in her class at Iowa State University, graduating in 1880. Teaching in Mason City, Iowa, she became the first female superintendent. After the death of her first husband, Leo Chapman, she got involved in the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. She continued that work after marrying her second husband, engineer George Catt. She began working with Susan B. Anthony and NAWSA in 1890.

In 1900, Carrie Chapman Catt was elected president of NAWSA after Anthony’s retirement. Chapman Catt resigned in 1904 to care for her sick husband. After his death in 1905, she worked on international women’s rights. In 1915, she returned to NAWSA. She designed the “Winning Plan” to fight for suffrage at both the state and national level. Although she often clashed with a younger generation of suffragists on tactics, her efforts were an important part of passing the 19th Amendment. Chapman Catt then went on to found the League of Women Voters, helping to inform all citizens and encourage political engagement. She continued to advocate for international suffrage, world peace and against the persecution of German Jews. To learn more about Carrie Chapman Catt go to this article or the Places of Carrie Chapman Catt.


  1. Research and analyze multiple perspectives on historic and current issues

  1. Compare different strategies for organizing and advocacy. Evaluate these strategies based on the goals and context of the issue.

  1. Persuade different audiences using specific evidence and rhetorical strategies

Inquiry Question

How do people organize and work together to make change in the world?

Collage of pictures of women and men suffragists.
Screenshot of the National Park Service's 20 for 2020 website. Use this website to help you with this activity.

Activity 1: Dinner Party

Carrie Chapman Catt was president of NAWSA twice. Leading a national organization often required bringing together different activists, politicians, and philanthropists to create a strategy for passing suffrage laws. Catt had to know when to compromise, when to speak up and how to address disagreements. In groups, have each person choose from the list below or from NPS’ “20 Suffragists to Know.” Research your assigned historical figure. What was their position on suffrage? What did they feel was the best way to accomplish it? How did their experiences shape their opinion on suffrage?

Then have conversations, in character, on how to achieve women’s suffrage. You can sit around a big table or meet in smaller groups, then rotate. What views do you have in common? Where do you disagree? Do the points of disagreement prevent you from working together? Where is there common ground? Do you think women's suffrage is possible in the next decade? Snacks are encouraged- food often brings people together!

Activity 2: Inform Voters

Founding the League of Women Voters, Chapman Catt connected informed citizens with voters. The League of Women Voters continues to provide information on candidates in local and national elections. How do voters in your community learn about candidates? Choose a local race and research the candidates. What are their stances on key issues? What is their philosophy of government? Make a comparison chart for voters. Would you endorse (voice your support) for any of the candidates?

Running for: ____________________ (mayor, county council, state legislature, etc.)

Candidate A: Candidate B: Candidate C:
Issue 1: _____________
Issue 2: _____________
Issue 3: _____________

I endorse __________________________________ because ___________________________________

Activity 3: Local Change v National Change

The debate within NAWSA that led Alice Paul and Lucy Burns to found the National Women’s Party was about strategy. Catt remained committed to what she called “The Winning Strategy.” NAWSA organized at the state level to convince states to change voting laws to include women. Lobbying at the national level was only one part the strategy. At the time of the 19th amendment, 19 of 48 states let women vote. The younger generation of suffragists wanted to focus on passing an amendment to the Constitution. This would change the law for all women at once, but passing a constitutional amendment is a hard process.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of each strategy? Think about what we can learn from this comparison. A lot of issues today have both local and national solutions. Think about an issue you care about. It can be related to voting, like lowering the voting age to 16 or the debate about voter ID laws. What are the benefits of letting states and local governments make their own rules? What are the drawbacks? What are the pros and cons of letting Congress decide? Make a T-chart comparing the benefits of State or National legislation.

Benefits of State Change Benefits of National Change
________________________ ________________________
________________________ ________________________

Then contact the most appropriate public official. You can call or email your local state representative or your Congressman, depending on who would best help make change. All public officials will have a way to get in touch with them on their website. Tell them what you think the law should be and why they should be the ones to try to pass it.

Activity 4: Campaign for change

The mastermind of NAWSA’s “Winning Strategy”, Catt was organized and dedicated to making change. She joined and led other organizations to reform society, including the Women’s Peace Party and the Committee on the Cause and the Cure of War. Think about the issues that you care about. Who do they effect in your community? Are people aware of the issue? What changes would you like to see around the issue?

Today we have new tools for organizing, but it is still important to dedicate energy to spreading awareness. Design a social media campaign for the issue you care about. Sketch or describe 3 posts to the social media platform of your choice. Consider visuals and slogans as well as the use of tags and hashtags. What platform does your intended audience use? What would grab their attention and make them think about the issue? What is the big take-away you would want viewers to know about your issue? How can you encourage the word to spread and go viral?

These activities were researched and written by Alison Russell a NCPE intern with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. 

Part of a series of articles titled Curiosity Kit: Carrie Chapman Catt .

Last updated: August 10, 2021