Carrie Catt/Sanitized History Discussion (March 1996)

Carrie Catt/Sanatized History Discussion

Query:            From Irene Stuber            19 Mar 1996

According to a University of Iowa online "zine" the African-American students there are getting the name of Carrie Chapman Catt removed from a campus building.

Their claim is that she was racist and sought to prevent black women from getting the vote. I have been attempting to reach people "behind" the movement, but have not been successful.

As most of you know, many of the groups which are trying to remove some of the present rights of women are also taking some words of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc, out of context. Now Catt is in line for the treatment.

I first got messages regarding Catt's so-called racism several years ago but rather ignored it as actions of some radicals. It seems, however, that by retelling and retelling it has reached the status of fact. I would like to know what FACTS they are basing this continuing "urban" legend on. Please don't tell me it was in the bargaining she attempted with Southern senators which she then turned down flat. Help uncover the truth in this matter, please.

Carrie Chapman Catt, whose rare political skills got the suffrage movement passed deserves better from us.

Response: From National Women's History Project 26 Mar 1996

Hello Irene,

Your query was met with raised eyebrows here as Catt is much admired in this office for her dramatic success in culminating the 72 year struggle for woman suffrage. Resources in our library, however, paint a picture of Catt as being much like *most* other white women/men in the suffrage and Progressive movements at the time: fearful that illiterate people, including immigrants and blacks, would be easy prey for wily politicians. According to Robert Fowler, "...though her views require careful treatment, no gloss can be given to her routine discussion of blacks in generic and highly unflattering terms."

Check pages 83-90 of Robert Booth Fowler's book, _Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician_(Boston, Northeastern U Press, 1986.)

I would hope that the very students challenging Catt after so many years will, in the interest of full human equity, focus an equally demanding light on men of whatever ethnic or cultural group who were misogynist. That will leave most American buildings, bridges, mountain peaks, and holidays ready for re-naming!

Response: Vikki Bynum 26 Mar 1996

First, I would like to point out that if we start removing from buildings the names of white racists, particularly those who worked between 1890-1920, we'll have to remove scads of them! It was an incredibly racist era, and the sad fact is that many white reformers who accomplished fine and noble things--for which they should be remembered--were not so fine and noble in their acceptance and manipulation of prevailing currents of thought during their time. Carrie Catt was one of those people.

She was a great organizer, and there is much in her feminism to admire, but one cannot ignore her class, ethnic, and racial biases. When I teach the suffrage movement, I simply integrate these elements of the movement. Otherwise we're just repeating the perfect "hero" stuff of the George Washington, cherry tree, cannot tell a lie school.

Here's an 1894 quote fro Carrie Catt that reveals her prejudices as well as a key component of her suffrage strategy: "This government is menaced with a great danger...that danger lies in the votes possessed by the males in the slums of the cities, and the ignorant foreign vote[sought by each party to ensure] political success...In the mining districts the danger has already reached this point--miners are supplied with arms, watching with greedy eyes for the moment when they can get in their deadly work of despoiling the wealth of the country...There is but one way to avert the danger--cut off the vote of the slums and give it to women...the ballot." This sort of argument was extended to blacks as well. See Paula Giddings, _When and Where I Enter_, for more. Class and race biases of suffragists must be treated as an integral part of the suffrage movement.

>From Angus Johnston angusj@panix,com 26 Mar 1996

Angela Davis' _Women, Race and Class_ quotes Catt as referring in her address to the 1901 NAWSA convention to the "...aggressive movements that with possibly ill-advised haste enfranchised the foreigner, the negro and the indian..." and declaring that ..."perilous conditions seeming to follow from...this introduction into the body politic of vast numbers of irresponsible citizens, have made the nation timid..." about woman suffrage.[pg 122; Davis cites Ida Husted Harper's _History of Women Suffrage_, vol. 5, pg. 6]. Davis goes on to quote speeches that were delivered at NAWSA conferences during Catt's tenure as president that explicitly linked women's suffrage to the end of shoring up white supremacy.

I'm sure there are other scholars that go into this material in much greater detail--I mention Davis' work because it is in my experience quite widely read on campuses, and thus a good place to start digging into the sources activists may be getting their material from. Also, Davis has harsh words for both Stanton and Anthony, two other suffragists that Stuber suggested[original query] had been singled out for ill-treatment.

>From Tanya L. Zanish

26 Mar 1996

[Re: the removing of Chapman's name from the building]

This is actually currently happening at Iowa State University where the Carrie Chapman Catt building was dedicated last fall. There are a group of students (and now the current student government has agreed) that they feel uncomfortable with what they perceive Carrie Chapman Catt as representing, not to mention the fact they feel slighted by the ISU administration's treatment of the entire issue. It is a very unfortunate situation. They have, at this point, made their feelings known, but it is extremely unlikely that the name of the building will be changed.

There are currently several groups trying to sponsor dialogue on the different issues that this raises. Darlene Clark Hine was supposed to come to Iowa State last week to help foster the discussion, but was snowed in at Detroit.

>From David F. McCartney 26 Mar 1996

A group of students at Iowa State U. is protesting the recent re-naming of a building in honor of Carrie Chapman Catt, who graduated from Iowa State(valedictorian and only woman in her class) in 1880.

I'm not clear on the specific claims by the group but several years ago the issue was addressed by Robert Booth Fowler's thorough biography:_Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician_(Boston, Northeastern U Press, 1986.) In his book Fowler recounted the frustration of woman suffrage leaders who decried the extension of the ballot to recently-landed male immigrants whose votes were "pocketed" by party bosses. By the suffragists' reasoning, and Catt was outspoken on this, it was unfair that women, knowledgeable of civic affairs, would be excluded from elections while uneducated men could enjoy the privilege. Sometimes suffragists' rage spilled into xenophobia and racism, certainly by today's standards, and one of Catt's speeches, "America For Americans", ca. 1890, was particularly inflammatory.

While I don't believe such attitudes and expressions are to be condoned, they should be understood in their context. Catt was a product of her time. Her weaknesses, in my opinion, are far outweighed by her accomplishments, and she deserves to be honored for them. (In the interest of disclosure, I am also a member of the advisory board for the National 19th Amendment Society, a non-profit organization that is restoring Mrs. Catt's childhood home in Charles City, Iowa.)

>From            Robin Hemenway        26 Mar 1996

While I would make no claims regarding Catt's alleged racism, I was under the impression that the tension between Catt's suffrage organization (first NAWSA, then LWV) and black suffrage activists was fairly common knowledge. Nancy Cott's _The Grounding of Modern Feminism_ presents a fairly objective view of these tensions, which were rooted primarily in black activists' perception of Catt's willingness to sacrifice for "all" (white) women. In other words, Catt was apparently unwilling to acknowledge that the fight for black women's voting rights required special attention by white suffragists.

>From David Walker 26 Mar 1996

Clarification: This issue involves a building at Iowa State University in Ames, not the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The issue has been reviewed frequently in issues of the Des Moines Register.

>From Michael Chesson 26 Mar 1996

All you have to do is look at some of the work of the late Arnold Shankman, or even some of the less orthodox American history college survey texts to know that various suffragists engaged in anti-black, Asian, Irish Catholic, anti-Semitic diatribes in post-Civil War America. How interesting if history has now caught up with Carrie Chapman Catt. Did she not support Kaiser Woodrow and his great crusade in Europe? We know that the pious Woodrow was a racist of a rather advanced sort, and a womanizer to boot--guilt by association. I've always preferred Alice Paul.

As for taking her words out of context, isn't that what the present generation of boomer historians is mostly interested in? They do it to all manner of mostly straight, dead white males: Jefferson, Lincoln, etc. Why not an icon of the suffrage movement?

>From Antoinette Burton 26 March 1996

Although I don't know the details of the movement to have Catt's name taken off a building, I am certain of my own conviction that it only serves feminist movements well to have as full and as nuanced a history of their past as possible. Catt's imperialist attitudes, at any rate, were very real, as documented in her writings(especially after her early 20th century tour of Asia.) Anglo-American suffragism was shot through with imperial ideologies and Catt was no exception; it was part of the historical radicalism of American/western feminism(s), as I'm sure many on this list know from reading and teaching women's history. Insisting that contemporary feminists take heed of the impact of post-Enlightenment empires and slaveocracies on women's movements is hardly a "radical' position. What Catt "deserves" is what all historical subjects require: carefully researched, critical engagement that reveals all their complexities and contradictions.

>From Donna Lively 27 Mar 1996

I'm afraid that Carrie Chapman Catt did express ungracious sentiments at the death of Frederick Douglass. She was concerned that the widely quoted praise bestowed upon him by leaders of the women's movement would convince southerners that "...we are abolitionists in disguise, with no other thought than to set the negro in dominance over them."

I find it rather hard to forgive her for that even if she was just being cold bloodedly political rather than hot bloodedly racist. However, none of this is relevant to the case you describe. We either honor someone for their achievements or we do not. It could be that Ms. Catt was a "racist" but what she achieved did greatly benefit women of all colors. For that she deserves honor.

You may want to inquire of those who are agitating for the removal of her name. Ask, if they are really interested in removing "racists" from the national pantheon, rather than just taking a shot at "white, middle-class feminists," will they join in agitating to remove Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln from the national currency. (The Great Emancipator was known to indulge in the not-so-occasional racial slur. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves.) What more need be said?

The following item is a posting in response to a discussion on H-AmStdy(the American Studies H-Net list) relating to monuments and the civil rights movement. It contains issues relevant to this list's recent posting on Carrie Catt. I'd like to thank Jim Zwick for forwarding this information. KL

>From Thomas W. Ashwell 29 March 1996

I read with interest your inquiry about Carrie Chapman Catt which was cross-posted on H-Amstudy. Mary Ruthsdotter's reply was correct, but it also, I fear was ahistorical. Middle class white reformers had doubts about immigrants and minorities? Gee, really? OF COURSE THEY DID! Read some of Margaret Sanger's comments on the lower classes. What we call racism, they called protecting the virtues of family. Cultural relativism wasn't a big deal c. 1890-1910. This isn't to forgive, but it is necessary to explain and understand.

More to your point, and this too reflects the current unwillingness of many theory freaks to embrace the down-and-dirty world of practical politics, Anthony, Mott and the next generation of suffragists did have some harsh things to say about blacks. Note that immediately after the Civil War, Frederick Douglass, after years of support, rejected the vote for women on the grounds that it would distract from his efforts to win equality for black men. Douglass surveyed the landscape and traded race for gender. Was he a sexist? Yes, but so were most men. Was he a turncoat? Yes. Should he be ostracized for his political calculation? I don't think so. Susan B. went ballistic, as she should have, but she realized that politics ain't bean bag. THAT'S why the later (and ultimately successful) suffrage movement stayed so sharply focused on winning the vote rather than on other "women's" issues.

So, yes, Catt had problems with African Americans, but you could also say that it was all due to the fact that Frederick Douglass was a sneaky, disloyal, sexist. But that doesn't mean the U.S. isn't a better place because of Catt and Douglass and their work!

>From Susan Tower Hollis 28 March 1996

There is no doubt that sanitized history is the history taught predominately in the schools. But you should know that the Nevada Women's History Project has as one of its current projects to assess what is actually being taught in social studies/history in terms of women's history, specifically in Nevada(rather interesting topic) and then will be working with teachers, at first limited to Washoe County(the Reno/Tahoe area) to seek to incorporate women and minorities as well into the teaching of Nevada History in the K-12 curriculum. We are also working with the Dept. of Education for the state on this subject and are in consultation with library resources and others at the School of Education at the U of Nevada, Reno.

>From         Cliff Hawkins       
        31 Mar 1996

Thomas Ashwell's remarks on Frederick Douglass are beside the point, because Douglass, while making a debatable compromise on voting rights, did not make vicious misogynist remarks comparable to the racist, nativist statements made by some suffragists. People are complaining about the vicious statements, NOT about debatable political compromises.

>From Victor R. Green 31 Mar 1996

I think the issue is not whether Catt or Douglass helped make the US a better place but whether and how we should memorialize them. My belief is that bigots do not merit a name on a public building whatever their goal and if it means renaming half our public structures, so be it. I resigned from and will never forgive the ACLU for giving its annual Micklejohn Award to Earl Warren, the California attorney general who promoted the incarceration camps for all Japanese-Americans in WWII.

>From Donna Lively Lively@library.uta.ecu 01 April 1996

Frederick Douglass did not reject the vote for women. He simply did not support the position that the vote for black men should be rejected unless the 16th amendment also included women. Black communities all over the United States at that time were being subjected to high levels of mob violence by their white neighbors and his belief was that the vote would at least give these communities some power to protect themselves. Anthony and Stanton did indeed go ballistic over his decision and as a result said some very unfortunate and ill-considered things. But Frederick Douglass to the end of his days was a "women's rights man" and no sexist.

>From Cynthia Powell 02 April 1996

I am a graduate student writing my dissertation on Carrie Chapman Catt's mature years. The exact title will probably be "Carrie Chapman Catt: Intellect, Love and Politics in the Woman Suffrage Movement." I did not receive all the messages in this discussion, so I'm not sure how it originated. I am disturbed, however, that CCC is being remembered only in terms of her racism. I have often thought that CCC is a scapegoat for all of the racism, classism, etc within woman suffrage and progressive politics more generally. As other commentators have pointed out, it is important to study figures who were racist in including them in the historical record. Moreover, to remove CCC's name from a building in protest to her racist statements is an extremely monolithic view of her life. Her life demonstrates the power of women's networks to make change and to provide emotional sustenance. CCC was recognized by Latin American, Japanese, Filipina and Hungarian women for aiding the growth of women's networks. When the Nazis began persecuting

Jews in Europe, she organized a protest of non-Jewish women. None of this erases the racist views she held in expounding woman suffrage politics, but the picture is more complicated.

I can understand how disappointing and revolting it can be to think about the racism and imperialism of the woman suffrage movement. I am a woman of color myself and often had difficulty feeling inspired given my subject. I'm glad that I have stayed with it, though, because it has been fascinating to learn about the articulation of white dominance and national identity through CCC's life.