“A small group of people determined to oppose legislation, if provided with money, as were the brewers and distillers, may prevent action being taken, even though the masses of the people demand it.”
In a modern political landscape that empowers lobbyists and special interest groups–particularly those with enough money to spare–you wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that these words were spoken in the last few years. In fact, they were spoken one hundred years ago.
Carrie Chapman Catt, who composed these words, embodied socially progressive ideas in more ways than one. Born in 1859 in rural Wisconsin, Catt dedicated four decades of her life organizing campaigns and advocating political leaders across the country for the passage of laws to enable women’s suffrage. During a time when even the more influential women rarely occupied positions of high social and political power, Catt served two terms as the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association between 1900 and 1920 and founded the League of Women Voters in 1920.
Like her close friend and NAWSA presidential predecessor Susan B. Anthony, Catt worked tirelessly for several decades to champion the women’s suffrage movement in the pursuit of a national right to vote. Between the 1890s and 1910s, Catt helped develop and implement campaigns across the country to pressure state and federal leaders to support suffrage legislation. At the grassroots level, she also helped to mobilize thousands of volunteers and supporters for the NAWSA and made hundreds of speeches to promote her goals and visions.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 fulfilled the most fundamental goal of the suffrage movement, Catt helped to create the League of Women Voters. Not fully content with a federal amendment giving women across the country the right to vote, Catt expanded her vision for greater gender equality by encouraging women to become more active political leaders. In a pamphlet published by the LWV entitled “Whose Government Is This?,” Catt advocated for women to enroll in classes in citizenship and ethics so that they could learn about how their governments work and operate. In order to attain a greater impact on politics, Catt concluded the pamphlet by writing, “women must be on the inside of parties, and before that can be brought about they must understand better than they do the strength of weakness of each political process.”
When the League of Women Voters published these words, only one woman had been elected to Congress. By the end of the 1920s, 23 women would hold positions in the federal legislature. This pamphlet not only attests to Catt’s vast contributions to the women’s suffrage movement and its eventual realization in 1920, but also illustrates how the fight for equal rights and representation continued to grow beyond the passage of the 19th amendment.
**To learn more about women’s suffrage, check out the “Get Out The Vote: Suffrage & Disenfranchisement in America” exhibit from the Special Collections and University Archives.
David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science, University of Maryland.