Iowan Carrie Chapman Catt blazed a trail for women that is being celebrated 100 years later.
She created the League of Women Voters on Feb. 14, 1920, and led the charge toward the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which on Aug. 18, 1920, gave women the right to vote.
The Johnson County chapter of the League of Women Voters is kicking off a yearlong centennial celebration with a “birthday bash” at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Park Lodge at the Terry Trueblood Recreation Center in Iowa City. Other events will follow, marking various milestones at the local, state and national levels.
On a day devoted to hearts and flowers, the evening’s program will feature an hourlong excerpt from a one-woman play about Catt’s heart and named for a flower.
“The Yellow Rose of Suffrage,” written and performed by Jane Cox of Ames, will give audience members a glimpse into the life of Catt, who was born Carrie Clinton Lane in Rippon, Wis., on Jan. 9, 1859, and died in New Rochelle, N.Y., on March 9, 1947, at age 88.
Her family moved to Charles City, Iowa, when she was about 7. She taught at a country school to pay her way through college and, in 1880, graduated as the valedictorian and only woman in her class at Iowa State University, then known as Iowa State Agricultural College. In short order, she became the first female superintendent of schools in Mason City.
“She was a gutsy little girl right from the beginning,” said Cox, who recently retired from Iowa State University’s theater department. “She was outspoken in what she believed from the time she was a little girl. She had a lot of energy, and she actually felt that she was called to achieve something big in her lifetime. She didn’t know what it was, but she just had a feeling that was something that was going to happen to her, and it did.
“She was called upon to lead women,” Cox said, noting that one of her big attributes was being an organizer. “Other women believed as passionately as she did, that women should have the right to vote, but she brought a sense of organization that hadn’t been there before. ...
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“There were clubs that were meeting, but nobody really knew where they were (or) who was in charge. At a time before computers, when organization was really difficult on a national scale, she began to make lists of the clubs and what they were doing, and began to send messages to them about important events that were coming up.
“She organized the national movement toward the proposed amendment. She interviewed, and sent out other women to interview every single national legislator, so she would know how they were going to vote ahead of time.”
Those who were going to vote yes were asked to wear a yellow rose on their lapel, and those voting no were asked to wear a red rose, making it easy for the women in the galleries to identify and approach the naysayers.
Hence the title of the play, “The Yellow Rose of Suffrage.” Cox will do a cutting that follows Catt from childhood to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She has performed the show “hundreds of times” since 1995, including presentations at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
“People take (voting) for granted so much today,” Cox said. “I really take voting seriously and try to learn about candidates and what path they might follow. It’s a real privilege to be able to do that, and hopefully the play gets that across to people — women in particular.”
Men can join in the nonpartisan, grass roots advocacy efforts in Johnson County, said Syndy Conger, co-president of the local chapter. Formed in March 1920 by Zella White Stewart, the Johnson County charter was changed in 1973 to allow men to participate. The group now has about 149 members, including 10 men, and membership is open to anyone ages 16 and older.
Conger is heartened to see younger women expressing interest in helping shape policies at the local level. “That’s exciting for us,” she said.
Voter registration remains a big focus, she noted, along with voter education and organizing candidate forums and letter-writing campaigns for causes the group champions.
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Beginning with Catt’s vision to educate and energize women who had never been allowed to vote, the League’s mission has expanded and now operates at the county, state and national levels, Conger noted.
“The League of Women Voters is the only living organizational descendant of the suffragist movement,” she said. “It’s a great thing to be able to say.”
If You Go
• What: League of Women Voters of Johnson County’s Birthday Bash
• Where: Park Lodge, Terry Trueblood Recreation Center, 2401 Scott Blvd., Iowa City
• When: Thursday; doors open at 5:30 p.m., program from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m.
• Cost: $10 at the door
• Features: Hourlong excerpt from “The Yellow Rose of Suffrage” by Jane Cox, portraying Carrie Chapman Catt, Iowa native and founder of the League of Women Voters; appetizers and wine will be served
• Information: Lwvjc.org
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