Response to “ISU’s culture of exclusion on Catt Hall continues”

Jane Cox is a professor emerita from Iowa State University and the author of many one-woman plays, including one on Carrie Chapman Catt, which she performed in twenty-six states, including at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian.

As I read the commentary Bleeding Heartland published concerning Iowa State University and Catt Hall, I discovered that the writers believe the “university administration had failed to hold open discussions regarding Catt’s actions,” that “Naylor requested that the university hold open forms to discuss Catt’s history of political expedience, but ISU refused to seek student input,” that the university called itself “the best in the country while operating on stolen land,” that the university “neglected to change their recruitment and retention efforts towards BIPOC students in any meaningful way since the 1990s,” that “Iowa State clings to intellectual dishonesty,” that “Iowa State has always hid behind a veil of objectivity to dismiss the concerns of BIPOC,” and that now “the university has locked impacted students out of the renaming process once again.” 

Since I do not believe objectivity is a negative trait, here are a few facts for which there is documentation.

REGARDING THE NAMING PROCESS AND ISU PRACTICES

1. The initial request to name a building for Carrie Chapman Catt came from students themselves via the Government of the Student Body. The resolution to take that action passed on November 5, 1974. I have a copy of that document in my files if anyone would like to see it.

2. The process was slow because of money raising concerns. Anyone who gave money would understand the building would not be named after them, but after a woman whom very few had met. The fundraising efforts are documented.

3. The University Archivist was finally the individual who organized the movement. In a statement dated May 25, 1998 she reported that “All along this whole procedure was done openly with lots of support on and off campus […] We had local people involved from the community; we had ISU students; we had faculty and administration […] People from all over the state were regularly calling, writing, or stating their endorsement of the project.” She concludes, “At no time was anything secretive or underhanded. Nothing in my years of research changed my beliefs regarding her [Catt’s] character or her aims.” I have this two-page document in my files.

4. As Director of the Women’s Center, Celia Naylor-Ojurongbe (as she was then known) was a member of the 19th Amendment Planning Committee for over a year. This committee was to plan the dedication ceremonies. I believe minutes of these meetings are still on file and although, not a member of the committee myself, I have talked to multiple people on that committee who told me much of what transpired.

5. There were at least fifteen open forums or lectures given on the subject of race and suffrage during 1995-1996, and I attended many of them. One such event in October 1996 featured Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, who was cited in the commentary by the September 29th Movement. About sixty people attended; I was there. During the Q&A she was asked about the Catt Hall naming controversy. The Iowa State Daily reported on her answer.

“I hope the movement doesn’t get stagnated on a name because nothing constructive will result if this is the case,” she said. “The name on the building is one issue. Don’t dwell, it’s done.

“[…] Move on, you’re fighting a dead person,” she said.

6. The accusation the university is occupying stolen land is not accurate. Iowa was a part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, bought from the French, who had formerly ceded it to Spain but was back in French hands by 1800. The U.S. paid three million dollars to France for the right to make treaties and then did so. The Treaty of 1836 can be read here; the signers are listed at the bottom. By the way, $7,500 in 1836 is worth over a million and a half dollars today and for reference, Iowa became a state on December 28, 1848 and Iowa State University (as it is now known) opened its doors in 1868. As to the statement that there is little offered in the way of programing for indigenous students, here is the website of the American Indian Studies Program at Iowa State.

7. As for the accusation that Iowa State has neglected to change its recruitment and retention efforts towards BIPOC students since the 1990s, there is, among many other programs, Science Bound, a program that helps empower BIPOC students make the transition from precollege to college in ASTEM fields. There is BUILD, through Student Counseling that offers a special BIPOC group service. The Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion (a recently created position) offers the Coalition of Black Male Students and QTPoC for Queer and Trans People of Color to create support groups. There is the Thomas L. Hill Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE).

I mention that named conference because Dr. Hill worked faithfully with the September 29th Movement, including the 1997 meeting with the representative from the U.S. Department of Justice, Iowa State President Martin Jischke, and four members of the movement. I have a copy of the report submitted to the administration by the Department of Justice and it makes for interesting reading and illuminates the efforts of Dr. Hill. There are many additional examples of changes in the last 26 years, and I can supply more.

8. As for being “locked out” of the renaming process currently underway: the administration made clear from the beginning that only persons who had not expressed a public opinion on Carrie Chapman Catt would be considered for the committee. The idea was to form a group without preconceived bias. I was not considered as a member of the committee, even though I have done extensive research on Catt, because I have made public statements in support. Nor were any who had spoken publicly against her invited to serve.

REGARDING THE RACIST STATEMENTS ATTRIBUTED TO CATT

Catt’s long life was well-documented, and much of the extensive material it is easy to access. The Library of Congress has more 9,000 documents on Catt alone; all are available online.

Other collections of primary sources on Catt, not as readily available, are in the New York Public Library, the National Archives, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, the Bryn Mawr College Collection, the Smith College Collection, the Vassar College Collection, collections in various state historical museums, and, of course, at the Iowa Historical Building and at Iowa State. The website newspapers.com has more than 100,000 items on Catt.

I would like to address four quotations included in the September 29th Movement’s commentary.

Catt made 185 speaking tours, and 723 of her speeches are available. Several biographers have written that the speeches require careful reading because of their length and complexity. This passage comes from a speech the thirty-five-year-old Catt delivered in Iowa in December 1894, called “Danger to Our Government”:

It would readily be seen that granting the vote to women and cutting off the vote of the slums if it could not be otherwise controlled, would result at once in good to the nation. 

When reading the entire speech, it becomes apparent that the “danger,” as defined by Catt, is the buying of immigrant votes by “Chicago hoodlums,” “Tammany Hall,” and others. The concept of a secret ballot was initially so unfamiliar to American voters that it was labeled “Australian” where the practice began. Before the secret ballot was commonplace in this country, voters went to the polling places with ballots already completed, often by someone else. Newspaper offices often offered completed ballots free of charge. Then the voter could be paid quite openly for his vote and be on his way. Male immigrants to the U.S. in 1894 were allowed to vote in as little as three months after arrival, depending on state regulations, and often needed the money the sale of a vote could bring.

In the same speech, Catt stated, “Put the ballot in the hands of every person of sound mind in the nation.” When she gave this speech to the Iowa Suffrage Association, it was two days after a bitter suffrage defeat in Kansas where “the moral conviction of Kansas men had been utterly surrendered to imagined party advantage.” Catt had been campaigning on the plains of Kansas for over four months.

The second and third quotes come from a 1917 book to which Catt and others contributed: Woman Suffrage by Federal Constitutional Amendment. The book’s purpose was to illustrate why a federal amendment would be the best way to guarantee voting rights for women citizens. An original copy is available at Parks Library, Special Collections on the Iowa State campus. An electronic copy can be found through the Library of Congress website here.

These quotations come from chapter VI of that book:

Woman suffrage would so vastly increase the white vote that it would guarantee white supremacy if it otherwise stood in danger of overthrow.

and

White supremacy will be strengthened not weakened by Women’s [sic] Suffrage.

Chapter VI contains the six typical arguments against a federal amendment and a possible counterargument for the women to use in defense. The second argument listed in opposition to women’s suffrage is that “Southern members of Congress say they oppose suffrage because it would mean an end to white supremacy since it would confer the ballot upon the Negro women of their respective states.” Catt suggested countering this by telling Southern members of Congress that nothing would change for them in this regard and that perhaps the members have “a sly dread of female supremacy.” She states that Southern men need not worry in that respect either, since men would still outnumber women. She supported both statements by population numbers.

Later in the same chapter, she called the need for such arguments “ridiculous” and asked that all people be included in the ballot, regardless of whether a group is fearful of another group.

The fourth Catt quote is taken from a three-sentence newspaper article published in the Oregon Daily Journal of August 15, 1920. Catt was in Nashville, Tennessee for the final state battle for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

It is an absolute fabrication that I have at any time advocated for interracial marriage between the white and negro races. Furthermore, I believe it to be an absolute crime against nature.

Eileen Weiss, who wrote the award winning The Woman’s Hour, described the circumstances surrounding this episode on pages 265-266:

Tennessee Senator Allen Daniel Chandler called Catt an anarchist and a dictator who favored intermarriage between the races. In 1920, interracial marriage was illegal in thirty of the forty-eight states, including Tennessee, and anti-miscegenation laws would remain enshrined in state constitutions for almost another century, until declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even in those New England and upper midwestern states where interracial marriage was not against the law, it was widely scorned. Catt was right that mixed-marriage was a toxic topic and woman suffrage could not afford to be in any way associated with it. She’d never said anything about marriage between the races; the allegation was a calculated lie, manufactured by the Antis and mouthed by their man Candler, but it could still be dangerous. She could not afford it to stand. Within hours she’d written a firm, terse response and released it to the press. “It is an absolute fabrication that I have at any time advocated for interracial marriage between the white and negro races,” she insisted. “Furthermore, I believe it to be an absolute crime against nature.” Her statement was published in newspapers across the country.

When pressed for the source of his allegations about Catt’s views on interracial marriage, Candler had to admit he stretched the truth a bit, connected dots in a most haphazard way. He said he’d based his claim on a published interview with Catt in which she was quoted as saying, “Suffrage knows no bias of race, color or sex.”

The final thirty-sixth state was won by one vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment became Constitutional law.

Mary Church Terrell, first President of the National Association of Colored Women and colleague of Catt’s for over thirty years, wrote,

By a miracle the 19th amendment has been ratified. We women have now a weapon of defense which we have never possessed before. It will be a shame and reproach to us if we do not use it. However much the white women of the country need suffrage, for many reasons which will immediately occur to you, colored women need it more. If we do not use the franchise we shall give our enemies a stick with which to break our heads, and we shall not be able to live down the reproach of our indifference for one hundred years.

By the time Catt died in 1947, she had lived during the Battle of Gettysburg and D-Day, had gone from riding a horse to high school to sailing the world in great ships, and most importantly, had gone from a time when women could not vote or even be declared guardians of their own children, to a world (which she helped to build) of women citizens who could help guide, through their ballots, their own destiny.

Top photograph of Carrie Chapman Catt courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, provided by the author.

 

  • Bravo. Well done.

    So the suffragette
    In one respect
    Was just a bit
    Of an assholette.

    Happens all the time, throughout history.

    Lonnie G. Bunch III, current Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (and remarkably to me, the first historian in that role) recently commented in the magazine that the first Secretary had — at least in the broad scheme of things — the right vision for the Institution, yet was profoundly racist and would not even allow Frederick Douglas to speak there.

    Lonnie is black. He writes, “I know that the past is too complex to lionize or excoriate my predecessors.”

    I’m kind of thinking the assholette deserves her building. I wrote previously that it was black people who saved us last November. That’s not wrong, but it would not have been enough without the women voters who also kicked Mr. Trump’s butt to the curb.

    That’s my opinion, anyway. I’ll spare you from examining the other thing I’ve got that everyone else has.

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