The following is a Woman of Courage profile written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
One of the best known leaders of the women's suffrage movement was Carrie Chapman Catt, who had strong ties to the North Country and who once "inflamed" the countryside with her oratory.
Carrie Lane was born in Ripon, Wisconsin on January 9, 1859, the daughter of Lucius Lane and Maria Clinton Lane. Both of her parents had graduated from Potsdam Academy and several generations of the Lane family had farmed the family homestead in West Potsdam, NY for many years. Lucius and Maria had gone west in 1855, soon after their wedding, but both families remained well known locally. Catt's girlhood home is the site of the future Carrie Chapman Catt Museum.
Carrie attended Iowa State College and graduated in 1880. Like many well educated young women of her day, she went into education, serving as the Superintendent of Schools in Mason City, Iowa (1883-84). In 1885 she married Leo Chapman, the publisher and editor of the Mason City Republican, who died the next year. In 1887, as a young widow with some experience in the law, education and journalism, Carrie Chapman joined the Iowa Woman's Suffrage Association. By 1889 she was organizing local suffrage movements all over Iowa and was a delegate to the national convention in 1890.
She married George Catt, an engineer, in 1890. Their moves to Seattle and New York gave her an opportunity to continue her organizing work in different areas. Carrie was once again widowed early when George died in 1905.
Carrie worked as an organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1890 to 1900, when she became its national president. She lead the campaign to win women's suffrage with a federal amendment to the constitution until 1920 when the 19th amendment was ratified.
In May 1914 Catt had come to Canton, NY to conduct a school for suffrage workers at the first woman's suffrage convention ever held in St. Lawrence County. The May 20, 1914 issue of the Courier and Freeman carried an account of Mrs. Catt's speech to between 500 and 600 people who had come to the Opera House to hear her. The reporter described her speech as factual, her attitude as conciliatory rather than combative, and remarked that her excellent argument had been couched in terms which could not offend.
The next year she was invited to be the principal speaker of the New York Association of the Potsdam Normal Alumni at their 22nd annual banquet held at the Hotel Marie Antoinette in New York City on January 16, 1915. She spoke extemporaneously, but the reports of her remarks caused a furor back in St. Lawrence County. The headline from the January 27, 1915 Courier reads "Carrie's Caustic Comments: Mrs. Catt Claws Up the North Country." Among other things, she was reputed to have said "Northern New York is a fine place to get out of."
The debate over what people said she said and what they thought she meant raged hotly in the local press. Articles were written in the Normal Magazine as well as letters to the editor of the Courier and Freeman. At least one report of the incident in the local press did admit the possibility that Mrs. Catt had been misquoted. This was her contention in a letter to the editor of the Courier and Freeman which was published in its entirety in a Canton paper, the Commercial Advertiser, on February 9, 1915. She wrote:
"A dozen friends have each sent me clippings from papers of the North Country arraigning me for remarks purporting to have been made in a speech at the Potsdam alumni dinner in New York. The report must have been written by a person either strangely lacking in a sense of humor or so hostile to the cause I represent, that he meant to dealt it a sly blow at my expense. Most of the statements put into my mouth by my correspondent, I not only did not make, but I made none which could have been so construed even by the most indifferent listener. The remainder are a confusion of disconnected half-statements joined to others to produce a sentiment I did not express or feel."
She went on to say that "To be misquoted and misconstrued is the inevitable fate of any person who ventures to speak extemporaneously and I accept it as part of the penalty for being a reformer. I can only say in defence that did I not cherish a reverence for the 'land of my fathers' and a respect for the Potsdam Normal School next to my own Alma Mater in the West, I should not have been at the dinner."
Carrie Chapman Catt spoke at least once more in St. Lawrence County when she appeared at a meeting at the Ogdensburg Opera House on October 25, 1917, again on the topic of women's suffrage. Catt went on to serve as the first president of the League of Women Voters which was created following the passage of the 19th Amendment. The League was organized to educate American women in the intelligent use of their newly won suffrage.
After 1924 Carrie Chapman Catt spent much of her time working for pacifism and disarmament in the aftermath of the World War I. She organized the National Conference on the Cause and Cure of War. Catt died in New Rochelle, NY on March 9, 1947.
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