This year marks the 100th anniversary of a momentous accomplishment in history – the ratification of the 19th amendment in which women were granted the right to vote.
One of the key players at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement, which lasted more than seven decades, was one of Iowa’s own – Carrie Chapman Catt. And for the past two years, Laurel Bower of Creston has been working on a documentary for Iowa PBS – “Carrie Champan Catt: Warrior for Women” – to highlight the notable suffragist’s achievements.
Upon learning about Catt, Bower, Iowa PBS producer and director, said she was surprised about how few people knew who Catt was but also wasn’t surprised based on how little is taught about the women’s suffrage movement
“It’s just kind of a littler blurb. You hear about Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were extremely important, but there are many other players in it, and Carrie Chapman Catt really was one of the formative women’s suffrage leaders,” said Bower.
Bower said she believes, and many others who have studied the movement believe, that it was Catt who came up with the winning strategy which lead to the ratification of the 19th amendment.
“That was one of the driving forces behind doing this,” said Bower.
‘Warrior for Women’
Bower’s documentary tells the story of a young Catt, what inspired her mission, and documents her life-long fight for women and their right to vote.
Bower said it was the story of Catt’s childhood that was her favorite. Both of Catt’s parents were interested in politics, but Catt’s mother was not allowed to vote in the 1872 election. As her dad got ready to head in to town to vote, she learned that her mother did not have the same right.
“She was just shocked that her mom didn’t have that right and basically made a vow to herself at that point and to her parents that she was going to change that,” said Bower.
Before Catt’s role in the movement, a number of suffragists emerged from the abolishionist movement. As a second generation suffragist, Catt was mentored by prominent leaders in the movement, such as Susan B. Anthony.
“They fought for years within their movement,” said Bower. “They would separate and develop different organizations within the whole women’s suffrage movement, but she (Catt) really felt like you needed to do two things: find the states that are still going to support this ... a state by state plan, and a federal plan, where they needed to change president Woodrow Wilson’s mind about this.”
Bower said Catt’s strategy of focusing on both the state and federal governments is what ultimately swayed the opinion of the men in power at the time.
“She was brilliant. Really politically savvy ... that’s what my doc was about,” said Bower. “She may not have always agreed with things, but she knew how to get things done.”
Catt faced a number of challenges, such as racism within the movement, encountering women who did not want vote or believed women should not vote, and building relationships with political players with differing morals and values.
Bower said, for Catt, the suffrage movement in the south was different, where suffragist believed if women got the right to vote, it meant black women would be able to vote, too.
“A lot of the suffragists down there didn’t like that idea,” said Bower.
Bower said, some consider Catt to be controversial because she appeared to have compromised with certain people in power, which raised their opposition.
“Carrie would fight those things but would also sometimes compromise on things to get things done because for her, the right to vote was what mattered. She truly believed that would open doors for all women,” Bower said. “She was a political strategist. She was pragmatic. ... It’s a really complex story, because she was a really complex person.”
Women behind the documentary
The documentary is narrated by Kate Mulgrew, an American actress most commonly known for her role as Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager and as Galina “Red” Reznikov on Orange is the New Black. Bower said Mulgrew was wonderful to work with as she felt connected to the story. Mulgrew spent her formative years growing up in Dubuque.
Woven into Mulgrew’s narration are interviews with a number of historians and authors who have extensively researched Catt and the women’s suffrage movement, such as Jane Cox, Iowa State University; Karen M. Kedrowski, Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University; Elaine Weiss, author, “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote”; Martha S. Jones, Johns Hopkins University; Linda K. Kerber, University of Iowa; Linda Meloy, Ph.D., League of Women Voters of Iowa; Deborah Ann Turner, M.D., J.D., League of Women Voters of the United States; Beth Behn, Ph.D., historian; Ivadelle Stevenson, Carrie Chapman Catt’s great-great niece; Sue Johannsen, “Hard Won. Not Done.” curriculum organizer; Nancy Hill Cobb, University of Northern Iowa; Paula F. Casey, co-founder, Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail; Doris J. Kelley, chair, Iowa’s 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration Committee; Corrine M. McConnaughy, Ph.D., The George Washington University; Dianne Byrstrom, Ph.D., Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University; Janice Ruth, chief, manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
“Carrie Chapman Catt: Warrior for Women” debuted Tuesday evening on Iowa PBS, but will be rebroadcast 1 p.m. Sunday and the documentary is available on www.iowapbs.org. Digital extras and resources related to “Carrie Chapman Catt: Warrior for Women” can be found at iowapbs.org/catt.
“Her name should really be known more. The passion they had and the fight they gave, ... we can learn a lot from that,” said Bower.