There has been some discussion lately about the attitudes of Carrie Chapman Catt concerning race.
It is my view that whether we describe Carrie Chapman Catt as racist or not racist depends on how the word is defined. In Daughters of Jefferson, Daughters of Bootblacks, the primary source for the UHURU article, racism is defined in the introduction as including not only intentional acts of racial discrimination and hatred, but as also involving the participation without explicit dissent in economic, political and cultural institutions that in any way perpetuate racial privilege.
In other words, according to the author, Barbara Andolsen, "all of us who are white participate in racism, no matter how pure our feelings toward women and men of color." According to this definition all whites are racist; there is no ground for a discussion. With this label thus applied however, there are a few facts and three issues I would like to explore.
This is a quote from Carrie Chapman Catt in 1903 at the national meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association after a speaker from Mississippi discussed Anglo-Saxon supremacy: We are all of us apt to be arrogant on the score of our Anglo-Saxon blood, but we must remember that ages ago the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons were regarded as so low and embruted that the Romans refused to have them for slaves.
Yet, in the last months of the campaign to win ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Carrie Chapman Catt campaigned in Mississippi and told white Southern men that giving women the vote would not change the hold they had on their supremacy in that state.
This was a woman who from the start of her suffrage career spoke in African-American churches and African-American clubs. She knew W.E.B. DuBois and wrote articles for The Crisis (the magazine of the NAACP); she was praised by Mary Church Terrell (first president of the National Association of Colored Women) as being without race prejudice; she was blacklisted by the DAR; she wrote in defense of slandered African-American soldiers in World War I; and she said in a public speech that racism would destroy this nation unless the issues were discussed. I could list many more circumstances and quotes, but for the purpose of this letter, I would like to examine in particular three issues in which there is some disagreement.
First is the issue of qualifications for voting. Catt believed for at least a period in her life that a voter should be able to read and write. At the same time, she insisted that any literacy tests must be applied equally, and she condemned literacy tests devised to exclude any on the basis of race. Because such literacy tests have been used expressly to exclude a segment of the voting public, this statement is open to the interpretation that such a requirement is racist. Having studied Catt's other writings, her dream was a thoughtful, enfranchised population, aware of the issues and concerned and educated about them. Although such a standard may be applied to racist ends, it is not racist in itself.
Second, is the issue of statements about the male African American vote being for sale. Catt in a speech to the thirty-fourth convention of NAWSA made reference to the fact that disfranchisement of blacks throughout the South was being tolerated because the black vote appeared to be a "purchasable vote" and because of this appearance, Northern states were beginning to do the same. Such statements about the buying of votes is made in other speeches and occasionally in private letters. Open buying of votes did reach epidemic proportions during the years of the suffragist struggle. The private ballot was very rare; payment for one's vote was made in public and often the ballot was marked for the voter by someone else and then given to the official. The fact that there were many courageous African-American men who physically fought their way to the ballot box and refused bribes was not so well known. And as Mary Church Terrell remarked in a speech given in 1904 at the NAWSA national convention, African-American men "never sold their vote till they found that it made no difference how they cast them."
These views of Catt concerning the appearance of purchasable votes have been used to prove that she was a racist. It is my view that she condemned this practice wherever she found it, and she was dealing with what many historians believe to be one of the most politically corrupt periods in this nation's history.
Third, Catt has been accused of racism because of speeches made in Southern states during the final months of the campaign. The cause of women's suffrage at its first meeting (1848) was integrated and perceived to be integrated. After suffrage leaders attended and delivered the eulogy at Frederick Douglass' funeral in 1895, at the request of his family, Catt wrote to one of her friends that now the South knew what it had long feared, that suffrage leaders were abolitionists.
As soon as African-American men were granted by Constitutional amendment the right to vote in 1869, a proposed amendment went up to Capitol Hill. It read, "The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex." This amendment never changed in its wording. It was proposed to every session of Congress from 1869 to 1919 when it finally was passed by two votes.
On the day the Nineteenth Amendment was signed into law, Catt said in her short speech, "Women have undergone agony of soul which you may never comprehend, in order that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom." All women had won the right to vote by the Constitutional Amendment.
Any student of government could tell us that because an amendment is in the Constitution doesn't mean that the practice of it is universal. Examine the Fifteenth Amendment and remember that many African-American men could not vote until after the great Civil Rights Movement in the latter half of this century. The Nineteenth Amendment was no exception. Many African-American women were unable to vote even after the Constitutional Amendment had been passed, but it was in the Constitution of the United States.
The question remains: Were Catt and other suffrage workers exhibiting racism by their behavior in the South during the final push towards ratification? Regardless of their personal views, they were using racist arguments.
I am in agreement with the conclusion reached by Andolsen when she wrote of Catt (and … other suffrage leaders) that they were "women of integrity who had a genuine commitment to the struggle for the recognition of the rights of all women. In my judgment, these women did not passively condone Southern segregation practices and actively manipulate racist ideology solely, or even primarily, because of personal bad intentions. These white women suffrage leaders made their strategic choices to use racist ideology to their own advantage within the context of a racist society that put intense political pressure upon them. In a racist society these women had severely limited choices. They did, however, have the option of actively resisting racism, although at the likely cost of a significant delay in obtaining woman suffrage."
To me, the most worthwhile ethical question to emerge from studying the life of Catt is whether the question of going against one's beliefs for what one feels to be the greater good is ever an ethical choice. This is a choice that is made over and over throughout this nation's history, on a regular basis by most public figures, and throughout most of our personal life stories. Sometimes such a choice seems appropriate; sometimes, not…
I hope that our campus and will continue to spend time and energy debating the views of someone born over 130 years ago, will include as part of that debate a way to move any lesson learned into contemporary times. It sees to me in my study of the past, that history repeats itself over and over. Where are we today? What can we learn? Can we understand from the past how to build a better coalition for the present? If not, this debate, all of our views of Catt, all of discussions and letters including this one are merely wisps of chaff blowing in the wind.
Jane Cox is an associate professor of Theatre at Iowa State University.