The vote has been costly. Prize it…understand what it means and what it can do for your country.Carrie Chapman Catt
Located a short distance outside of Charles City, Iowa, is a museum. It’s in an unexpected location, tucked away amidst fields and almost hidden by prairie. This is not a place you come across by accident. To visit is an intentional act.
This is appropriate, since the woman it honors led a life of intentional acts. The cumulative effect of those built a world in which I, as a woman, have a voice in the government that represents me. As I write this, millions of women are voting or have already cast their vote. As I write this, a woman is a candidate for President of the United States. No matter what your political beliefs may be, this is a momentous event in a country that didn’t allow a female to even vote less than a century ago.
The museum is the Carrie Chapman Catt Girlhood Home and Museum. It’s dedicated to one of the most influential people in the suffrage movement and the founder of the League of Women Voters, and to the 19th Amendment which she helped make possible.
Mrs. Helen Gardener and Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt leaving the White House in 1920, the year the 19th Amendment was passed
Catt was born in Wisconsin in 1859 and her family moved to Charles City, Iowa, when she was seven years old. No wilting flower, she was known to chase boys with snakes as a young girl. At the young age of 12 or 13 she asked her father why her mother didn’t vote with him. His response, that it was too important to leave to women, began her lifelong dedication to changing that double standard. Sue McDonnell, former National 19th Amendment Society President (which runs the museum), was amazed that a comment when Catt was that young had such a profound impact on her life.
As she grew so did her defiance of stereotypes. She worked her way through college with only partial support from her father and graduated as valedictorian, the only woman in her class.
That she received any financial support for college from her father at all was remarkable, as was the fact that she was the first female superintendent of schools in Mason City. She moved to San Francisco with her first husband in 1885, and even though he died the following year of typhoid fever she remained and was the city’s first female reporter. Four years later she married George Catt, a man intensely supportive of her commitment to suffrage for women. He was so supportive that she was able to travel and work on behalf of the suffrage movement four months out of the year!
(She also had pockets made in all of her dresses. The woman was brilliant.)
You can learn all of this from a visit to the museum, which is a source of pride to the residents of Floyd County. Students from the high school and middle school helped to restore the building and there’s an alternative high school named after her. Sue McDonnell, who made a special trip just to show me the museum, told me about a visit from members of the high school football team.
“We’re standing where she was married,” they said in awe.
Walking in that house is an awe-filled experience. There’s no furniture, so you can’t picture where she sat or studied or played. Instead, along the walls is a series of story boards that lead you through her past. But just knowing that the worn boards under your feet, and that threshold you just crossed, were trod by someone who was instrumental in giving half the population a voice is powerful and moving. You feel the import of what she did and the sacrifices she made, and I found tears in my eyes as I experienced its weight.
In addition to the house, there’s a separate building with interactive displays. These illustrate geology of North Central Iowa and what life was like during the time of Catt’s childhood. There are period costumes that children can don, and a computerized display table.
The Carrie Chapman Catt Girlhood Home is open to the public from late May to early September and by appointment the rest of the year. Learn more and plan your visit to the museum on their website.