Carrie Chapman Catt’s Winning Plan

Campaigns need strategies for winning support.  As we enter into this legislative session, the GLBT community and its advocacy groups need to consider what kind of strategy we will employ.  Some are pushing for an all or nothing approach to recognition of same-sex marriage.  Others argue we should be willing to compromise to achieve some measure of recognition now.  Regardless of the end game, a strategy must be employed.

I tend to look to history to see what strategies have worked and which ones haven’t.  This doesn’t mean a previously successful plan will work in this fight but it does suggest possible approaches.  One such successful strategy was that used by Carrie Chapman Catt and women getting the right to vote.

As of 1916, for 68 years, women had been working for their right to vote for their elected representatives.  Starting in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Women’s Right Convention, they resolved ; “That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”  Now I’m not arguing that same-sex marriage is the same as the right to vote.  Nor am I arguing it equates to this seventy-year battle.  What I am contending is the fight for the vote and the fight for relationship recognition were fights that took a long time to come to fruition.  We may be able to get some pointers.

During that time, three key figures in the fight for women’s rights worked hard and died before seeing the fruits of their labor.  Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the two women who helped organize and lead the Seneca Falls Convention, passed on in 1880 and 1902 respectively.  The third mover and shaker, Susan B. Anthony, died in 1906.  They had first proposed a federal amendment to the Constitution in 1866 to give women and black citizens the right to vote.  Eventually, the Fifteen Amendment granted African-American males the right to vote, but not women.

Wyoming and Utah territories, gave women the right to vote in 1869 and 1870.  Michigan and Minnesota women won the right to vote in school board elections in 1875.  A few other states gave women limited access to voting and then came Carrie Chapman Catt.

On April 3, 1893, the Colorado legislature passed a suffrage bill to be decided at the general election that fall.  The women suffragists begged the national leaders for help and they sent Catt.  In the fourth of six volumes, The History of Women’s Suffrage (found at Project Gutenberg), Ida Harper wrote this about the Colorado fight:

A promise of consideration and such aid as the National Association was able to furnish was given. Later they decided to send Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt and guarantee her expenses in case she was not able to raise them in the State. From her past record, they thought it likely she would not only do that but put money in the treasury, and the result justified their expectations. She was a financial help, but, much as money was needed, her eloquence and judgment were worth more, and she always will have a warm place in the hearts of Colorado women who were active in the campaign of 1893.

When that campaign opened, there was just $25 in the treasury. Lucy Stone sent a donation of $100. Iowa and California gave aid, and there were small contributions in money from members of the E. S. A. [Equal Suffrage Association] and from auxiliary clubs formed by Mrs. Chapman Catt in different parts of the State.

Catt raised money, worked with these women, and spoke to the reasons for Colorado women having the right to vote.  She worked closely with them locally and got men to vote for women to get the voting franchise.  Only a couple of years earlier, this fight had been lost quite handily.

Catt took what had worked in Colorado and moved on to the fight in Idaho.  In 1896, Idaho gave women the right to vote.  As a result, when Susan B. Anthony retired from the National American Women’s Suffrage Association Catt was elected as her successor.

At this point, the national organizations were having little effect nationally while the state women’s organizations in the American West got the vote in California, Kansas, and Alaska and Arizona territories.  There was a full blown rift in the women’s movement though.

Advocates for the “state strategy” and women like Alice Paul, leader of the Congressional Union and later the Women’s Party, couldn’t agree on how to proceed.  Paul and others in the movement wanted to focus on the national movement and Congress and abandon the piecemeal approach.  In a speech in New York City in December, 1916, Paul pointed out her strategy as found in Ideas and Strategies of the Woman Suffrage Movement by Roland Marchand:

We are not working to win New York. We are working to put the Federal Suffrage Amendment in the Constitution. The trouble with the suffragists is they are like the allies in the war …. State Suffrage by its scattered methods is losing as the allies have been losing. We lost Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Dakota – but why call the roll of those defeats! The method you ask us to pursue did not win a point last year or this, but at the National Capitol the situation is more hopeful because the Party in power is afraid of a method that actually costs them votes.

Paul believed they must confront and demand the women’s vote absolutely.  Yet, up to that point, the national movements had gained a few votes in Congress but a steady drumbeat of state wins had gradually crept across the states and with it politicians who were dependent on the votes of women to win reelection.  Catt understood this and the growing schism and had laid out her “secret winning plan” for women’s suffrage.

When thirty-six state associations [of NAWSA, National American Women Suffrage Association], or preferably more, enter into a solemn compact to get the [Federal] Amendment submitted by Congress and ratified by their respective legislatures; when they live up to their compact by running a red-hot, never-ceasing campaign in their own states designed to create sentiment behind the political leaders of the states and to aim both these forces at the men in Congress as well as the legislatures, we can get the Amendment through. [The NAWSA associations] should be disciplined and obedient to the national officers in all matters…

We should win, if it is possible to do so, a few more states before the Federal Amendment gets up to the state legislatures…A southern state should be selected and made ready for a campaign, and the solid front of the ‘antis’ should be broken as soon as possible. Some break in the solid ‘anti’ East should be made too.

Catt knew they couldn’t just win approval of the constitutional amendment in Congress.  It needed to be “ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof,” before it was fully enacted.  Paul and her supporters believed it could pass through sheer popular support.  Catt, having worked in the trenches, knew differently.  What’s more, she knew it wouldn’t pass without support in the South and the East.  That changed in 1917.

Suffragists fought and gained the women the limited right to vote in Arkansas primaries that year.  Even though Arkansan women didn’t have voter equality, this was a significant development that caused big electoral changes as detailed in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas:

Statewide primaries were held in May 1918, and more than 40,000 women voted. As a result, over fifty female delegates were elected to the Democratic State Convention. The convention included a women’s suffrage plank in its platform, endorsed “unlimited suffrage for women,” and supported a federal women’s suffrage amendment. During 1918, another attempt was made to include women’s suffrage in a proposed Arkansas Constitution, but the constitution failed to receive a majority in the popular vote.

What was even more incredible was when the federal amendment needed ratification, the “compromise” grassroots organization made Arkansas the twelfth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

In 1917, Catt also had her “break in the ‘anti’ East.” From an article in the New York Times about that era entitled, “1917: When Women Won Right to Vote:”

New York quickly became a pivotal state in the suffrage campaign, and soon ”dozens of women who had never dealt with larger units than missionary societies, literary clubs or cake sales were given territory with 16,000 or 17,000 voters and ordered to reach every one of these men,” the magazine observed.

At its height, the suffragette movement in the county enrolled 20,000 women and included 102 suffragette clubs, according to material in the files of the Westchester County Historical Society.

The state movements drove the national strategy.  The national strategy ultimately gained women the vote, but not without the mass movement of people and allies.

This brings us to the point of my meandering hike through history.

When we strategize to bring about same-sex relationship recognition, we need to engage all viewpoints.  The “all or nothing” strategy didn’t work for many decades for women.  It probably won’t work for us in the short run.  Catt recognized from working on the ground in Colorado and Idaho that working with those who marginally supported women’s suffrage was a winner.

They are the minds they needed to persuade.

Minnesota and Michigan only gave women the right to vote in school board elections, at first.  Arkansas only gave women the right to vote in primaries, initially.  We need to listen and enlist those who are willing to fight for civil unions, repealing DOMA, or even enacting domestic partnerships if that will get them thinking about the issue.  Catt’s “Winning Plan” was to enlist all supporters regardless of their level of backing.  She did so strategically thinking about how regional wins would eventually bear fruit with their neighbors.

Let us not forget it was Tennessee, Arkansas’ neighbor to the east, which put the Nineteenth Amendment over the top, making it part of the U.S. Constitution.

As we consider our approach to same-sex relationship recognition by the Minnesota state legislature, let’s think about what would really move this issue forward.  Will demanding same-sex marriage or nothing really give us state recognition now?  If civil unions would do the same thing, do we quibble?  Do we plan on an all-out fight against everyone who disagrees in part but supports us in substance?  I’m not willing to wait ten years or whatever.  I believe this issue has come to a head and without action this year regardless of what it’s called, we will be found with nothing once again.

Are we willing to learn from Carrie Chapman Catt’s “Winning Plan” or will we butt heads for twenty more years?  It’s something to think about.



Contact Your Politicians
Governor Mark Dayton
Phone: (651) 201-3400
Email: (Web Contact Form)

Senator Tom Bakk
Phone: (651) 296-8881
Email: [email protected]

Representative Paul Thissen
Phone: (651) 296-5375
Email: [email protected]

Representative Erin Murphy
Phone: (651) 296-5496
Email:  [email protected]

See also:
“The DFL’s Big Gay Farce” from Issue 457, November 29, 2012
“Three of Four Top Elected Minnesota Politicians Comment on the Marriage Debate” from Issue 458, December 13, 2012
“‘Earnest Money:’ Repeal DOMA Now” from Issue 458, December 13, 2012
“Why We Can’t Wait” an Interview with Sen. John Marty from Issue 460, January 10, 2013
Waiting for Superman” from Issue 460, January 10, 2013
“Don’t Skip Dessert” an Interview with Rep. Ryan Winkler from Issue 461, January 24, 2013
“What’s In A Name?” A Case for Civil Unions from Issue 461, January 24, 2013

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