Carrie Chapman Catt

Radio Address on the History of the Suffrage Movement - 1939

Carrie Chapman Catt
January 01, 1939
Print friendly

A century ago no organization existed anywhere in the world to urge the correction of the wrongs visited upon women by the laws and customs of the entire world.

In 1839, most women were married and at the marriage ceremony all property the woman might possess or ever acquire, even to her hairpins and shoelaces, passed to the possession of her husband. Should she earn wages, she was not legally permitted to collect and spend them. Although the property, nevertheless, stood in her name, she could not make a will. She was not permitted, anywhere, to be a guardian or co-guardian over her children. Fathers had been permitted to will away unborn children and this privilege remained here and there. Women still had owed obedience to their husbands and husbands in England and some American States still had a legal right to whip their wives if the stick used was not larger than a the husband's thumb.

About this date, Harriet Martineau, the first woman economist, visited this country and reported that seven occupations only were open to women. These were mainly domestic employments.

About that time, also, Angelina Grimke came to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and spoke at public meetings. Hers was the first woman's speech to be heard by many general audiences.

The organized woman movement dates from 1848, when the first convention of women was held at Seneca Falls, New York. A full program, containing eighteen grievances to be removed, was adopted, the last being the right to vote. The emphasis was placed on education, the right to qualify for the professions, and the right to property and wages.

The campaign that followed covered seventy-two years. From the beginning there was no pause, no hesitation, no backward step in the urge put behind it. The army starting out grew continuously and each of the eighteen grievances was gradually put to rout. It was a long, hard campaign, but, in the end, there were two millions of organized women hard at work upon the combined tasks of the program. Argument for argument, speech for speech, the campaign continued year after year, decade after decade, and generation after generation. Each year brought more converts, more workers, more money, more friends, and always clearer understanding. After the Civil War, I think there was never a Legislature which did not have a hearing on some point of the woman's program - property, education, civil or political rights. State amendments were submitted. We lost as many as we won. The advantages of carrying the campaign to every school district revealed itself at the close.

Full suffrage had been won in fifteen states. Fourteen states had granted presidential or primary votes in the Southern States which gave to women practically the same privileges. These fourteen states, plus the fifteen full suffrage states, thus extended to the women of twenty-nine states, the right to vote for presidential electors in 1920. It was estimated that 15,500,00 women could now vote for President. The number of electoral votes which would be decided by women and men voters had risen from 91 to 306 within four years by the grants of presidential suffrage or 41 more than half the total. Many other influences to help submit the Federal Amendment and secure its ratification sprung from the states which had developed a strong opinion favorable to woman suffrage.

Women are today equipped with qualifications unknown to the women before our generation. Ask yourselves what these women will make of the next seventy-two years. Society never stands still. Evolution is ever leading it onward and upward to bigger and better things. Unhappily, we have had a Great War and since it came, women have been drifting in a slough of uncertainty. In this confusion it is difficult to determine what are the immediate steps which need to be taken.

The right of the married woman, heretofore, has called for most legislation and, judging from the number of appeals introduced into legislatures, proposing to regulate and curtail the right of the married woman to work, she is not yet entirely free. What nobler activity can be taken by the Business and Professional Women than to make the married woman's status in our world more secure.

At the age of seventy-three, in the year 1893, Miss Anthony was asked: "What has been gained for woman suffrage during the past forty years?" She replied this: "We have turned every educational, religious and political body into a debating society on the woman question." Before that year came to an end, she might have added "the entire nation" to the list of debaters. When she was older still and I was yet young, I took a trip with her in a campaign state. Once, when things had gone wrong, I stepped to her door and said: "I think I have made the worst speech of my life tonight and I feel that I can never want to make another. Did you ever feel that way?" "Oh yes" she said, "I generally feel that way, but when I come to my senses, I know that bad speeches help a cause more than no speeches at all."

Thus, from first to last, we stumbled on for five generations and, collectively, were able to bring to this generation some privileges and opportunities we never had. What has been done, can be done again, but my advice is, - make no mistake. Do not attempt to change a law without a thorough understanding of why you ask for it and exactly what the result will be, The Code of Law which passed from Rome to Norman, from Norman to Anglo-Saxon, and into the British Common Law and the French Napoleonic Code, and thence onward to the new American States was founded on a universal belief that God had intentionally created women an inferior and subservient sex. Something of that old prejudice and superstition lingers around the Woman's Code today. Strike at it as hard as you may; drive it out of existence. It must go and women will never enjoy a just and secure status until the last vestige is gone. Beware of any proposed change in the law which may produce less alleviation of injustice and more confusion.

Catt, C. C. (1939). Carrie Chapman Catt Papers: Speech and Article File, 1892-1946; Speeches; Untitled; 1928 to 1944. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,