I became fascinated with Carrie Chapman Catt and the surrounding controversy at Iowa State as a sophomore three years ago. As a history major, I had the unique experience to complete in-depth research into Catt’s life, reading almost everything she ever wrote. In publications, academic conferences and popular presentations, I have explored both Catt’s accomplishments and her antiquated racial views. Over the past three years, I have researched Carrie Chapman Catt as thoroughly as anyone could, and in that same time I have consistently argued against any renaming of Catt Hall.
Now, I have changed my mind.
Citing historical context, I argued that Catt’s racist comments were born of a political strategy and that, on the whole, she was much more progressive on race than the vast majority of white Americans at the time. While this is true, we are in a moment now which calls for us to ensure that our values are not just adequately but extraordinarily represented in those whom we choose to idolize.
Catt was born into an era that saw consistent and often violent efforts to replace ideals of freedom, equality and open political participation with a regime of patriarchal white supremacy. She cannot match our values, nor should she.
She advocated for women in a revolutionary way, bringing women into the political sphere. She also advocated for Black people, refuting scurrilous charges of rape brought against Black soldiers in Germany in 1921, publicly supporting the return of stolen land to people of color worldwide and encouraging the publication of Black suffrage leader Mary Church Terrell’s autobiography, "A Colored Woman in a White World."
But, in this moment, our community needs to make certain that our values of diversity, mutual respect and equality are represented without exception.
Changing the name of Catt Hall is an important step in that direction, but it cannot be the only step. It must be accompanied by substantive efforts to remake Iowa State University into a campus in which all students, faculty, staff and community members are safe, respected and allowed to reach their fullest potential.
Some have taken the extra step of calling for the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics to be renamed as well. I believe the Catt Center has much more reason to keep its name.
While Catt Hall was deemed so out of convenience, the Catt Center has made Catt’s aspirational goals for all women, goals which she was never able to fulfill, a centerpiece of their incredible efforts. I believe there is merit to saying “We were inspired by her great work for women, but we are committed to doing and being better than her.”
Catt herself called for women of later generations to do better than her generation ever could. And I don’t know a single mother, grandmother or great-grandmother who doesn’t fully expect their descendants to outmatch them in every way.
Where Catt Hall stands as an oversimplified monument to an incredibly complex woman, the Catt Center acknowledges her flaws, celebrates her victories and commits itself to a more just and equitable future for all women.
Catt Hall is not the only name which should be rethought. From W.T. Hornaday to former President Martin Jischke, we must do our due diligence to remove tributes to those who do not fully represent the ideals Iowa State has pledged to uphold.
Because of the severe punishment inflicted on Catt Hall protesters in the 1990s, Catt’s own racist statements and the higher standard demanded of us by this moment, I believe Catt Hall should be renamed. We cannot expect Iowa State University to flourish as a diverse community of scholars unless we are committed to advocating tirelessly for positive change, even when it is difficult and uncomfortable.
Crystal Brandenburgh is an alumna of Iowa State.